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Madras is a lightweight cotton fabric with typically patterned texture and plaid design, used primarily for summer clothing such as pants, shorts, dresses, and jackets. The fabric takes its name from the former name of the city of Chennai in India.
Madras today is available as plaid patterns in regular cotton, seersucker and as patchwork madras, meaning cutting several madras plaid fabrics into squares or rectangles and sewing them back together to form a mixed pattern of various plaids.
Authentic Madras comes from Chennai (Madras); both sides of the cloth must bear the same pattern; it must be handwoven (evidenced by the small flaws in the fabric). Cotton madras is woven from a fragile, short-staple cotton fiber that can’t be combed, only carded, resulting in bumps known as slubs which are thick spots in the yarn that give madras its unique texture. The cotton is hand-dyed after being spun into yarn, woven and finished in some 200 small villages in the Madras area.
Madras fabric is generally regarded as belonging to the peasant class in its native India. Dutch traders arrived in India in the early 1600s to trade in the local calico cloth, followed by the British. The English East India Company sought quality textiles, finding the small fishing village of Madraspatnam (Madras), and the company established a trading post there in the mid-17th century. The first madras material was a muslin overprinted or embroidered in elaborate patterns with vegetable dyes. To secure a reliable labor supply, the English East India Company promised a 30-year exemption from duties for Indian weavers in the area, and thus within a year nearly 400 families of weavers had settled in Madras. Undyed madras cloth became popular in Europe because it was lightweight and breathable. Cotton plaid madras reached America in 1718 as a donation to the Collegiate School of Connecticut (now known as Yale University). Sears offered the first madras shirt for sale to the American consumer in its 1897 catalog.
The name "madras" was attributed to shirt maker David J. Anderson in 1844, although the material had been referred to as such much earlier. In 1958 William Jacobson, a leading textile importer, traveled to Bombay to trade with Captain C.P. Krishnan, exporter of madras from Chennai (formerly Madras). The two men struck a dollar-a-yard deal for madras material possessing a "strong smell of vegetable dyes and sesame oils," woven of bright colors and originally bound for South Africa. Krishnan warned Jacobson that the fabric should be washed gently in cold water to avoid bleeding, advice that never reached the Brooks Brothers buyers to whom Jacobson sold 10,000 yards for the manufacture of madras clothing. Brooks Brothers then sold cotton madras garments to consumers without proper washing instructions, resulting in the bright madras dyes bleeding in the wash and the garments emerged discolored and faded. To counter dissatisfied customers, Madison Avenue advertising giant David Ogilvy coined the phrase "guaranteed to bleed" and used this as a selling point rather than a defect. A 1966 catalog advertisement stated:
Authentic Indian Madras is completely handwoven from yarns dyed with native vegetable colorings. Home-spun by native weavers, no two plaids are exactly the same. When washed with mild soap in warm water, they are guaranteed to bleed and blend together into distinctively muted and subdued colorings.
In the United States, the plaid cotton madras shirt became popular in the 1960s among the post-WWII generation of preppy baby boomers. As early as the 1930s, cotton madras clothing was emerging as a status symbol in the US because only American tourists who could afford expensive Caribbean vacations during the Great Depression had access and thus the madras shirt was a signal of affluence.
- Orvis Checkered Past: A Brief History of the Madras Plaid Shirt
- Sven Raphael Schneider, gentlemansgazette.com Madras Guide – How the Shirt, Pants & Jackets Became Popular July 12, 2013
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