by Gabriel Bell
You're probably familiar with madras cotton—also known as the madras check or bleeding madras—as that colorfully loud textile, which improbably combines a rainbow of small striped or plaid squares. Think back to the golfing pants you couldn't believe your grandfather wore or your father's bizarre hat captured on Kodachrome during the '70s.
But, having been supplanted by more modern, "sensible" European golf-wear created by designers such as J. Lindberg, madras is no longer uniform across America's links courses. In fact, for the last few years the technicolor pattern has become more common on the thin frames of the late-night Lower East Side set and other proponents of the hipster-preppy look championed by indie icons such as Wes Anderson than it is on the shoulders of Andover alumni.
Perhaps we can pin madras' migration from the Vineyard to Williamsburg on that contingent of fashion-forward thinkers who, having exhausted the possibilities of nominally anti-establishment looks—Goth dresses, ripped denim—focused their energies on the ultimate transgression: adopting the staples of the establishment itself. Of course, one need not watch more than a few minutes of basic cable to realize the briefly subversive "preppy chic" has been co-opted by mainstream stylists. Nonetheless, the resurgence of madras has infused many recent catwalk collections with welcome bursts of color and texture. Spring and summer [lines} by Americana designers Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren have almost always employed the madras check in shirts and chino-cut pants. The last few seasons, however, have seen more daring uses of the exotic textile.
Always interested in sexing up British traditions, Alexander McQueen created a somewhat sarcastic tribute to military history with a catwalk collection of infantry-inspired looks cut from madras cloth, other Indian textiles, and mismatched camouflage for Spring/Summer '05. At the same time, Belgian visionary Dries van Noten channeled the ghosts of Abercrombie & Fitch with a line that not only used madras checks but combined loudly contrasting patterns and colors much like the print itself. More recently, a particularly charming moment of national exposure occurred when the skittish Kara Janx outfitted Santino Rice with a pair of madras-inspired trousers for the designer makeover episode of Project Runway. Janx survived the challenge and the endearingly caustic Rice enjoyed his new duds
Perhaps the most complete tribute to the power of contrasting plaids came from the recent collaboration between British designer Jessica Odgen and Jean Touitou for his minimalist cult brand A.P.C. Titled "Madras," the highly limited—and almost entirely sold out—label features women's shirts, bags, and wrap dresses with cuts and colors that luxuriate in the notoriously challenging pattern while avoiding the many that working with such a historically loaded textile can bring.
And what of that history? Well, it stretches further back than your granddad's yacht club. While there remains some debate among historians, most allow that the techniques and traditions of madras-style cotton in the region for which it is named date back at least 5,000 years. A descendant of fabrics spun from yarn cultivated from the tree bark called karvelem patta, examples of gauzy, hand-woven cotton, or gada, have been found at archeological sites inhabited around 3,000 B.C. While the methods involved in making gada have evolved in step with the development of agriculture, technology, and trade, madras is still, more or less, madras.
Ignoring for a moment the material from which the Ralph Laurens of the world create their wares, true madras cotton requires delicate, short-haired Varalashmi cotton, typically grown in the Tamil Nadu region. While this pedigree of cotton gives madras its light feel, making it perfect for hot Asian summers, it does cause continuous breakage in the yarn-making process. Repaired by constant, painstaking knotting, the cloth spun from this unique yarn is covered in distinctive "slubs"—small stippling effects that, like seersucker, make madras attractively lumpy. To bolster the strength of this breathable hand-loomed fabric and to curb waste, early craftsmen began to sew larger lengths of gada out of smaller squares. Within 1,000 years of its invention, madras cotton was a regional staple used in dresses, curtains, and the ubiquitous mens' lungi wrap skirt.
Over the centuries, unadorned gada began to take on color in the form of hand-applied block printing—usually of a floral nature—using vegetable dyes. Unlike modern ink or acrylic-based dyes, these color treatments of thathiripoo flowers, rice skin, raw indigo, and root vegetables were not color fast and tended to fade or leak with each wash. A liability in most fabrics, this tendency to run was considered a benefit of the textile, eventually inspiring the term "bleeding madras."
Now, to be clear, we still haven't arrived at something you and your parents would call "the madras check." That innovation, much like khaki trousers and pajamas, was a bastard product of Western Imperialism. For all its ills, we must always wonder where fashion would be without centuries of ethics-free colonialism.
When Europeans first came to India during the Age of Exploration, they quickly latched on to the local bounty of inexpensive, high-quality cotton goods. Imported un-dyed primarily by the Dutch East India company and called indiennes perse or toile du levant, 17th and 18th-century Europe ate up the light, delicate cloth by the boatful. So valuable was the commodity that Elihu Yale—who was once Governor of the British encampment, Fort St. John, in Madras—included several precious bales of Indian cotton in his initial endowment to fund Yale University (no word on whether that aided in madras' continuing popularity amongst the Ivy League). Toile du levant became so popular that millers in France and Britain petitioned their governments into levying a series of tariffs and trade restrictions for fear that their industry might collapse. As has happened from the dawn of trade to this day, a developing supply market came into conflict with a self-restricting demand population. The imbalance sparked a "Cotton War," which played out in the commodities markets and, believe it or not, in physical violence on the streets of occupied Chennai.
As the craftsmen of Madras continued their work for the British in the 17th and 18th centuries, they fell in love with the beautiful, challenging patterns of tartans. In their hands, the various plaids became denuded of any clan or regimental meaning, melding into the local aesthetic. In addition to the single-plaid gadas, which can still be seen in lungis from Sri Lanka to Cambodia, producers began to stitch together variant patterns creating what we now call, "the madras check." Throughout the 18th Century, trends in fashion continued to bring Indian textiles to Western Europe and the Americas. The American Cotton War, that is, the Civil War, transformed Indian cotton from a luxury commodity to a fabric of first resort. By the early 1900s, the market was primed for the madras check.
First popularized by the Hathaway Shirt Company in the 1930s, bleeding madras had a bit of a rough start until advertisers were able to convince customers and retailers that the constantly changing hues of their clothes only added to the exotic charm. From there, it was a short leap to the country clubs everywhere. By the '40s and '50s, madras check had become synonymous with growing phenomenon of weekend recreation. Men, ensconced in their pin-stripe office worlds, would let it all hang out Saturday afternoon in a pair of crazy-quilt chinos. And pro golfers like Chi-Chi Rodriguez used madras belts to stand out on the greens. Eventually, the madras print became so symbolic of the Post-World War II leisure class that when it came time for the baby boomers to sartorially declare rebellion, they too donned madras—partially to mock their parent's generation and partially because the colors and patterns were, like, really, really wild, man!
By the Reagan years, the pendulum swung back against the funk of the '70s and it was again hip to be square. Thus did many aspiring Alex Keatons take up the country club styles of their grandfathers.
In the early '90s, culture migrated back the way of grunge and the Seattle rock scene inspired a generation to grab up trucker-grade flannels. While this was great for Carhart's bottom line, it wasn't clear that madras had a place in this era of ultra-manly, muted tartans. But then came Marc Jacobs' infamous grunge-for-the-elegant Perry Ellis collection. With more delicate variations on the popular plaid patterns, many criticized it as being too couture for the actual youth market and too youthful for the couture market. The line was panned and Jacobs was fired. Soon, though, Jacobs' interest in combining dissonant patterns proved ahead of its time. Within a few seasons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Galliano, and Jacobs himself experienced success following the formula.
And so, here we are now as hipsters top themselves with madras Panama hats and the "New Peacocks" of Wall Street craft the cloth into pocket squares. Over time, we have all come to rely on periodic raids of pop's closet. Today, we reach in and pull out a pair of madras trousers. Tailored to a close fit, they flaunt multiple colors, multiple patterns, multiple heritages, and multiple histories. Wonder what we'll grab out of the attic next year.
Illustration by Pepin Gelardi
There are few places further from the prim shops and crab shacks of Nantucket than the markets of Chennai, India. And yet, it is here—in the city still known as Madras to much of the world—that the crazy-quilt cotton favored by Massachusetts' dockside elite began its journey through fashion history.