Madras check is a lightweight summery cotton fabric native to the ancient city of Madras, today known as Chennai, in southeastern India. But what’s the story behind it? How did it get to our shops? How did it become such a classic pattern? This is a story of cultural hybridization, advertising creativity and oriental charm.
The story of madras has many protagonists: artisans and common people, traders and elites living in India, Great Britain and United States. It’s the story of a symbol: back in the 30s, madras shirts were the status symbol of wealthy American tourists coming back from their exotic holidays, as well as a wardrobe staple for the preppy style of the post-WWII baby boomers attending Ivy League universities. In India, on the contrary, madras cloth was typical of the working class or, at worst, it was used to make pajamas. Dating back to 5,000 years ago, the first madras fabrics were quite different from what they are today: initially spun using the tip-skin of trees, then using fragile short-staple cotton fiber, they were unadorned gauzy textiles imported by the 12th century African and Middle Eastern traders for its use in headpieces. Later, they started being decorated with hand-block printing techniques using vegetable dyes and floral and religious motifs.
How do these stories relate? In the Age of Exploration, the English East India Company began trading in the high-quality cotton produced in the Madras region, which became extremely prized and demanded. At the beginning of the 19th century, the madras cloth started being decorated with plaid patterns, which were very similar to the Scottish tartan. Legend says that the patterns were copied from the tartan plaids of the Scottish regiments that occupied southern India at the time, and more generally were demanded by the British traders following the tartan craze in the mother country. Unlike tartan, whose colors and patterns have symbolic associations with groups and clans, the madras plaid doesn’t have any clan or regimental meaning and creates a multicolored and eccentric effect by using loud colors.
In the 60s, the even more multicolored so-called Bleeding Madras became very popular. Due to the natural dyeing process, madras fabrics had to be washed in cold water in order to prevent colors from fading and blending. The advice never reached the ears of traders and sellers, who didn’t provide customers with proper washing instructions. Customers grew furious when they saw the colors blending and ruining their expensive clothes. However, advertising companies saved the situation by inventing the slogan: “guaranteed to bleed”. It was a success: the changing colors only added to the exotic charms.
The rest is history in the making: from the 30s to the 50s up to the 80s and to the present day, madras plaid has become a classic. How to recognize it?
- it must be handwoven and produced in Chennai
- both sides of the cloth must have the same pattern
- it has distinctive little yarn slubs, for madras are made using very fragile, short-staple cotton fiber which cannot be combed, only carded.