A Tailored History of Madras – Check It Out...

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Many of us who are into the Mod scene appreciate what is termed as Madras. From, shirts to jackets, to shorts and trousers, any discerning Mod, Modernist, Ivy League fan, or stylish geezer should own something that is a summer staple among the stylish. Here is a short history of how Madras became popular in the Western world.

Madras is a breathable, beautiful fabric, and, its history, however, is fraught with imperialism, slave-trading, and even the naming of a certain famous American university. Madras, despite its enthusiastic reception by western colonial powers, remains a uniquely Indian invention, one that has adapted and morphed with changing tastes but remains a testament to the indigenous ingenuity and craftsmanship of the region.

Most of you will be aware of the East India Company. The East India Company was the villainous organization we see in Pirates of the Caribbean. It really was, an actual British organization that was committed to plundering the natural wealth of England’s richest colony: India. This real-life version of the organisation received its Royal Charter during 1600, and on its third round of expansion, set up shop in a colony called Armagon.

The Trading Company was doing much of its business in spices and textiles and the fabrics they discovered in Armagon turned out to be of unacceptably low quality for export. The company was in a bind and needed to establish a new trading post with a thriving textile industry. In 1637, Francis Day, an administrator of Fort St. George and the city of Madras obtained a grant for the pre-existing village of Madraspatnam, leaving it under British control for at least two years. The port itself wasn’t exactly ideal, as many British naval officers pointed out, but the high-quality, cheap cotton in the area was certainly the inspiration for such a calculated move. The trading post of Madras and its accompanying military installation: Fort St. George was established in 1639. The English managed to lure weavers and merchants from across the region with promises, such as exemptions from tax duties. By doing this, they obtained some of the best hand-woven fabric available on the market at the time.

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The British made a huge fortune in Madras. Firstly, by shipping the cheap, strong cotton, and then by selling an un-dyed muslin version, before finally recognizing the real talent had been under their noses. The people of Madraspatnam had long been famous for the loosely woven and meticulously yarn-dyed fabrics.

The fabric that came to be known as Madras is, and was, woven by hand, first embroidered with elaborate patterns and later in more refined prints, in which red and blue were some of the most popular colours. Rice gruel was used as an adhesive and boiling spring water was used to set the dyes, the water of each region leaving a slightly different hue.

Records have shown that even before European presence in the region, the brightly-colored fabrics were traded as far as Northern Africa and the Middle East during the 1400s. The sixteenth-century saw this fabric refined to include more intricate dyeing processes and more complex patterns, but the Madras fabric was largely considered a working person’s material and was seen as nothing particularly special.

By 1822, fabrics from Madras were mostly in various tartans, which had become popular after King George IV paid a visit to Scotland and found himself drawn to the pattern. The signature vibrant plaid of the Madras either comes from the presence of Scottish troops in the area or simple Indian agency. It’s just as likely that Indian weavers had created a plaid pattern entirely on their own - without any European interference, but as the plaid Madras fabric became a sensation back in Europe, the British did their best, unsurprisingly, to take the credit.

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Yale: The Collegiate School in New Haven, Connecticut was in dire straits when they reached out to the openly corrupt governor of Madras, India in 1718. The college wanted to erect a new building and turned to perhaps the worst-reputed man in the entire British Empire for help, Elihu Yale.

At the time of the college’s request, Yale had a notorious reputation for enforcing a law that decreed that at least ten slaves must be placed on every boat to Europe. So egregious were his misdeeds that the British Government had to step in to try to control his predilection for illegally abducting local children and selling them as slaves.

Yale made a substantial donation to the ailing college. He sent money, books, paintings, and even yardage of the now-famous Madras fabric. The Collegiate School changed its name to honour the (frankly dishonourable) Elihu Yale and America had its first taste of the beautiful fabric that helped him earn his fortune.

Madras made a huge splash in the states, even after Elihu Yale’s first gift had been entirely used up. A Sears catalogue from 1897 is one of the first tangible pieces of historical evidence about the fabric’s reception in America. People evidently took to the stuff because, by 1919, the New York Times was reporting a shortage in the U.S.

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The easy-wearing, colourful fabric remained an affectation of America’s rarefied leisure class. Many young men throughout the 1930s and 40s discovered Madras vacation wear while on trips to the English-controlled Bahamas. The simple, hand-woven, vegetable-dyed fabric from modern-day Chennai, India slaked its wearer’s desire to look and feel like colonial aristocracy.

Madras’ big moment came with a 1958 fiasco when a fabric exporter failed to explain to Brooks Brothers that the 10,000 yards of Madras they’d bought were going to fade. When consumers all over the country began angrily writing to Brooks Brothers complaining that their new jackets and trousers were fading and bleeding, the company summoned the exporter, Mr. Nair, to the United States to punish him.

But, Nair deftly redirected their anger with an interview with Seventeen Magazine, in which he lauded the fading quality of this miracle fabric from India. Add some coverage by Esquire and Brooks Brothers had a huge phenomenon on their hands. Advertisers started praising the “marvelously muted” and “dustily well-bred” qualities of the Madras trousers and jackets. Before beat-up jeans were considered acceptable, a well-faded “Guaranteed to Bleed” Madras shirt conveyed a certain nonchalance that Ivy Leaguers loved. The reactive, unstable organic dyes that were nearly Madras’ downfall were eagerly accepted and Madras proved to become an enduring American classic.

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You can still find the bright patterned checks popping up at J.Crew and Brooks Brothers locations across America every spring. But, it's not just the post-war Mad Men on vacation style that we are talking about here. It's the way it was adopted in the UK especially by the Mods. Who lapped up the bright and interesting garments. Every now and then Madras, would pop up in a Hollywood movie, or on mid twentieth-century tv, whether it be as a shirt or jacket or shorts. By the sixties, the British Mods, often taking sartorial cues from both America and Continental Europe, were drawn to the brightly coloured plaid fabric. Some bands in the sixties would even done a Madras blazer.

The Small Faces are a fine example of such a band., and photographs of the band wearing such blazers, still influence some of the choices a Mod may make when in search of a unique garment.

Of course - if it wasn’t for the popular shops in London at the time, shops such as Cecil Gee, and of course those owned by John Stephen ‘the King of Carnaby Street’, beginning to stock, either actual, or copies of, American shirts, and blazers etc. And the look becoming more readably available. Then perhaps there wouldn’t have been such a popularity with Madras.

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John Stephen’s, store His Clothes, and subsequent stores such as Domino Male, Mod Male, and Male W1, used a fast turnover of style that made the businesses popular with those who wanted to reinvent themselves on a weekly basis. When we see the Beat boom in the sixties, and then what was known as Swinging London, bands such as The Who, The Kinks, the Rolling Stones and of course The Small Faces would flock to the fashionable epicenter of London style and purchase their clothes. Famously The Small Faces manager Don Arden, who was not the most forthcoming with the money the band was earning, had his offices on Carnaby Street, directly above John Stephen’s clothes shop and with an arrangement he had with all the menswear stores in Carnaby Street was basically able to offer The Small Faces shopping accounts as part of their contract, that and twenty pounds a week and a ‘percentage’ of their record sales. So maybe the most “Mod” band in the uk is particularly responsible for the popularity of Madras shirts and jackets on the scene, but the history of how Madras became popular in the west is one that is intriguing, and full of history.

Madras is still very popular today. Ralph Lauren, is probably the most well-associated brand to still use the fabric regularly. Many other brands have used Madras, brands from the high street, to the higher end, and those small independent labels in between. Every summer the lightweight and colourful plaid garments are in demand, and as I said at the beginning of this article, any discerning man of style should have a few Madras items in their wardrobe. Next week I plan to take a look at Seersucker.

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Read 769 times Last modified on Thursday, 16 April 2020 10:18
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