Here in the UK, utter the word ‘Madras’ to most people and they’ll assume you’re talking about a rather spicy curry dish. Madras is the old colonial name for the Indian city of Chennai. But we’re not talking about food, we’re talking about that other Indian export, the lightweight checked cotton fabric also know as Madras.
Like so many things we prize in the West, the fabric was an export from the days of the British Empire. It is sometimes said that the distinctive checked patterns of Madras fabric were copied from the tartan plaids of the Scottish regiments that occupied southern India in the 1800’s.
Given the hot temperatures in India, it makes perfect sense that they’d develop cool lightweight fabrics to wear. These fabrics made perfect summer clothing for us in the West and have been worn ever since.
In the 50’s and 60’s it was popular to wear madras fabric whose colours had not been fixed. This caused the dyes to fade each time they were washed. This became known as ‘bleeding madras’. This may be the reason that most madras print fabric available is somewhat muted in tone and hue, referencing the washed-out look so popular in the 60s. It’s worth remembering though, that originally madras came in a wide range of colours usually bright and colourful. It is these colours that differentiate madras checks from the richer more subdued tones of heavier tartan fabrics.
Sometimes various madras fabrics are sewn into a patchwork of small 3 inch squares and used to make jackets, trousers and shirts and shorts.
Given the number of colours and alternating patterns on these garments they make quite a statement and can be seen as an exponent of the ‘go-to-hell’ look for the summer.
Bill Murray’s character in Wes Anderson’s recent movie Moonrise Kingdom can be seen sporting a range of patchwork madras clothing – the film being set on the East Coast of the US during the 1960s.
If you don’t want to go for such a bold statement, using madras as an accent or accessory may work better for you, such as a tie or even a subtle lining fabric inside a jacket.
Sperry even line some of their boat shoes with madras.