Now considered a staple of preppy fashion, Madras fabric is one of the few clothing materials in the world still connecting the idea of real authenticity to value. Regardless of what kind of Madras fabric you’re sporting (our favorite being Madras shorts in the summer months), you may not be fully aware of the truly unique role this particular fabric has in world history and, more recently, preppy clothing.
What exactly is Madras Fabric?
Before we dive into the somewhat checkered history of this breathable fabric, it’s important to establish exactly what Madras fabric is. Today you might recognize Madras fabric in a tartan design, or what we call “plaid,” but its historical predecessors only resembled our modern counterparts in vibrant coloration and material. The process of making authentic madras fabric has remained largely intact, including the use of vegetable dyes, natural oils, sun setting, and of course, lots and lots of patience. It has, like most things in life, changed over time from its original conception, but its authenticity is still detectable in the same way that it has been for millennia.
So, if you’re wondering if that colorful plaid tie your grandma got you is true Madras fabric, here are a few ways you can confirm your intuition:
A Twine as Old as Time
Regardless of how truly authentic that Madras plaid tie you got for Christmas last year really is, it’s important to recognize that these simple checks of authenticity have been historically consistent for nearly 5000 years. Madras fabric takes its name from the Chennai region in which it was historically — and still is — made. Before the arrival of the Dutch in the early 1600s, what we now consider high-quality and authentic Madras fabric was considered a common clothing material strictly for the peasant class of India and rarely sported by anyone outside of their sleeping wardrobes.
However, regardless of being signifiers of lower societal status in Indian culture, Madras fabric was highly sought after in the Middle East and Africa (specifically in areas that couldn’t easily grow clothing material) for centuries. It wasn’t until after the arrival of the Dutch in India around the 1600s and subsequently the establishment of the East Indian Company shortly after when Madras fabric caught the eye of westerners for its durability and extremely cheap production cost.
Plaid Starts Picking Up Steam
Legend has it that the now ubiquitous plaid design we associate with authentic Madras fabric was popularized amongst the English after King George IV visited Scotland in 1822. He apparently became infatuated with the beautiful tartan designs he noticed on Scottish troops, but we’ll get back to that in a little bit.
In reality, the popularity of Madras fabric in Europe can really be attributed to basic economics combined with little event we now like to call the Industrial Revolution. Textile manufacturers in France and England had no other place on the planet to acquire quality fabric material so cheaply, so the East Indian Trading Company ramped up incentives for authentic production of Madras fabric in India. Their pitch to Indian fabric makers was simple: if you moved to the Chennai region and focused solely on producing authentic Madras Fabric, you would have a 30-year exemption from the normal duties expected of Indian citizens under British rule.
As you can imagine, a cheap and highly motivated labor supply combined with constantly increasing international demand made Madras fabric a fairly common material in world of clothing and textile manufacturing — at least for a short bout of history.
Plaid Makes Its Way to the New World
Even before George Washington did his thing in 1776, Madras fabric had found its was onto North American soil in a few weird ways. One of the more famous instances of this was when the brand new Collegiate School of New Haven, Connecticut reached out to several prominent British governors for financial support in 1718. One governor in particular, Elihu Yale, had made a significant fortune during his time ruling over the citizens of Chennai, India.
Yale donated substantial amounts of money, books, and, of course, large quantities of beautifully designed Madras fabric he had acquired during his time in India. Because the university was so blown away by the generosity of Yale’s donation, they decided to name their entire institution after this particular British governor (but really, Yale University sounds so much more appealing than the Collegiate School of New Haven anyways).
But, as the United States began expanding its borders in the early 19th century, so too did Madras's competition — American cotton — expand its output in its southeastern climates. The large demand for authentic Madras fabric suddenly took a back seat to the abundance of American cotton that could be easily shipped overseas and quickly manufactured in Britain’s booming textile industry. Around the same time, Madras fabric started becoming known less for its durability and cheap production costs and more for its beautiful plaid (or tartan) designs. Popular folklore attributes this to King George IV’s infatuation with the plaid uniforms of Scottish troops, but historic evidence suggests that authentic Madras fabric makers had begun perfecting this technique around the same time period.
Regardless of how and why Madras fabric makers started producing more plaid over un-dyed fabric, the world (specifically America) started taking notice of the unique, comfortable, and long lasting value of authentic Madras plaid around the turn of the 20th century.
Enter American Plaid Pop-Culture, circa 1950
Even though historians are pretty sure Madras fabric materials were likely being utilized by higher end clothing companies in the 1800s, the first bit of hard evidence can be found in Sears 1897 mailing catalogue which advertised the first known mass produced Madras shirt easily available to the American consumer. Only twenty years after this debut, Madras plaid began making its splash in the American fashion world.
The New York Times reported a shortage of authentic Madras fabric caused by mass demand in 1919, and Americans vacationing to the English-controlled Bahamas in the first half of the 20th century regularly sported authentic Madras as a token of their leisurely vacationer status. At this point, it would be safe to say that Madras fabric had solidified itself as the preppy, vibrantly colored and breathable material we know and love today; However, Madras fabric really became an American staple of preppy fashion after a marketing scandal almost tanked the original Brooks Brothers in the late 50s.
Interested in capitalizing on the trend of authentic Madras plaid fabric sweeping the preppy vacationers of the United States, the Brooks Brothers negotiated a deal with William Jacobson, a noteworthy textile importer at the time, for 10,000 yards of authentic dyed Madras plaid fabric.
Through accident or sheer ignorance, the Brooks Brothers mass produced as many plaid shirts as possible for their 1958 catalogue without including washing instructions for consumers. Because truly authentic, hand-woven Madras fabric is made exclusively with vegetable dyes and oils, the material is known to bleed excessively upon first wash as opposed to its less authentic plaid competitors.
And so, in a rather famous PR campaign prompted by consumers who were understandably angry about their bleeding Madras plaid, the Brooks Brothers coined the phrase “guaranteed to bleed” as the pitch for the true authenticity of their imported Madras fabric moving forward.
Plaid Becomes Preppy
Surprisingly (or not), the popularity of the Brooks Brothers "guranteed to bleed" ad campaign accelerated the demand for legitimate Madras fabric where consumers knew they were getting the real thing if they had to wash their Madras fabrics separately from their whites.
From this point onward, largely in part to its historically consistent production and authenticity checks, Madras fabric solidified itself in preppy culture for two unique reasons:
- As a consumer, you know for sure if you're getting the real thing. Authentic clothing items like Madras plaid helped consumers confirm that their purchases were legitimately produced and forced suppliers to hone in on quality over quantity.
- Even though anyone can agree with King George IV that Madras plaid looks great in pretty much any form, what really makes this fabric special is how comfy it is in hot weather. No wonder the people of India used this stuff historically for pajamas — I have a nice pair of Madras shorts that are on the same level of comfort as any pair of sweatpants I’ve ever owned.
Here at Country Club Prep, we couldn’t be happier that authentic Madras plaid is still in high demand just as it was 100 years ago. However, unlike the great Madras plaid shortage of 1919, we have plenty of unique and comfortable Madras fabric options for your summer wardrobe.
Sport a pair of Madras plaid pants to your next golf outing with a pair of white socks that were accidentally turned pink in the same wash and impress your buddies by telling them about how authentic your Madras plaid really is. Or, the next time you get invited to a fancy cocktail party and spot someone with a colorful Madras blazer, strike up a conversation with them about the nearly 5000-year-old manufacturing process that went into creating their plaid wardrobe.
Either way, we can all agree that the fabric makers of Chennai, India have perfected a material that is insanely comfy, vibrantly designed, and historically unique, and we can’t wait to continue sporting this iconic summer material for years to come.
What I love about Madras is that it goes everywhere…back in the early 1960s, before the “Ivy League” look was an early expression of preppy, I wore a green/blue/yellow Madras sports coat (with pleated shirt, black bowtie, cummerbund, etc.) instead of a tuxedo jacket (which, unaccountably, had traces of vomit on the lapel…) to a formal dance at Georgetown. It was a huge hit, as it wss the only non-black jacket in the ballroom. Madras truly goes everywhere…and looks good doing so.
Nothing like madras fabric to state preppy…I get my own from http;//fabriconlinestore.com, and get shirts made. I love the way they come out. But you have to get the authentic fabric.
If its preppy you wish to convey, then Madras it is, and that’s what pulls me to this fabric every season, and I just buy my own madras fabric by the yard, and get it tailored into a beautiful shirt or a pair of shorts. I get the fabric from http://fabriconlinestore.com
I love this article so much! A lot of preppy styles & iconic wear came from India- seersucker being another. :)