Indian madras, or simply madras, is unique among fashion fabrics because of the consistency of its form and resulting satisfaction in use. At the same time, its subtle mutability within that form has made it popular with a wide range of target markets over time. Themes of authenticity, the democratization of fashion, and antifashion emerge from the study of madras fashion, as discussed by Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) curator Patricia Mears in her “Introduction” to Ivy Style: Radical Conformists. This book is a companion volume to the 2012 exhibition of the same name.
One challenge of researching madras is that it is often subsumed within broader studies of Ivy style, such as the book based on the “Ivy Style: Radical Conformists” exhibit mentioned above. Edited by Patricia Mears, it offers nine essays by fashion professionals on the origin, details, and scope of Ivy League aesthetics. While there are specific and reliable discussions of madras, the student will need to extrapolate from the larger topic. For example, the book includes color photographs of dress in the exhibit as well as ensembles styled especially for the book. J. Press is a long-standing purveyor of Ivy style and many of the images are from the J. Press archive, styled by descendant Richard Press. As such, their reliability as a source of information is sound. Similarly, Take Ivy by T. Hayashida documents Ivy League campus dress in 1965, replete with images of madras in its natural habitat. From visual evidence, it is clear that madras is a key element of Ivy style. In addition, several books feature madras as background cover art and chapter headers, indicating its central importance in Ivy style fashion.
Indian madras describes a specific type of cotton checkered or plaid fabrics woven in the villages of southeast India and exported from the city of Madras (Chennai). What makes them noteworthy is that they have been produced in India in much the same way since at least the first century C.E., with an end product that is soft, strong, and colorful with broad appeal. Indian madras scholar Sandra Evenson describes the trade history of the cloth in “Indian Madras: From Currency to Identity.” She emphasizes that the cloth is made by South Indian weavers by hand to target market specifications, which are prized for their authenticity. A medium-quality cotton fiber is spun into fine yarns called “60s/40s,” meaning that in the lengthwise or warp yarns, there are 60 yarns per inch and in the crosswise or filling yarns, there are 40 yarns per inch. The combination of the these fine cotton yarns woven into a plain or tabby weave gives the fabric a characteristic handle, drape, and strength. Before weaving, the yarns are dyed by hand in vats with either synthetic or natural dyes and dried in the sun. Synthetic dyes are brighter and more colorfast than natural dyes. Natural dyes produce softer, muted hues that may migrate into each other with wearing and washing.
South Indian weavers produce madras on pit looms. The weaver rests on the edge of a pit dug into the floor and works the treadles underneath with his feet. Until the mid-twentieth century, looms produced fabric roughly 36 in. (90 cm) wide. With the boom in demand for madras in the 1950s, Swiss exporter D. B. Fröhlich, working with local Indian Weaver’s Service Centers, developed a method to retrofit existing looms to a 45 in. (120 cm) width. This made it possible for the cloth to be incorporated into mid-twentieth-century industrial apparel manufacturing systems, thus securing its place in fashion apparel manufacturing.
In his handbook Elegance: A Guide to Quality Menswear, men’s style scholar Bruce Boyer outlines the relationship between madras production and authenticity for the American market. There are several variations on madras. There is the true 60s/40s Indian handwoven plaid cloth using vegetable dyes in muted colors. Over time, the fabric and the dyes will soften, much like a well-loved pair of jeans. If the dyes are noticeably not colorfast, the fabric is called bleeding madras. There is imitation madras, woven on power looms, using international sources of cotton and synthetic dyes. Imitation madras may be preferred because it is woven in industrial quantities with fewer irregularities, producing economy of scale and lower price points. Madras may also be imitated by printing the plaid onto fabric for budget markets. True Indian madras retains its cachet among insiders because in Ivy style the handmade is associated with tradition and authenticity. In fact, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines require that in order to be labeled as madras, the cloth must be exported from the city of Madras (now Chennai); it must exhibit the same pattern on both sides of the cloth, meaning a check or plaid tabby weave, not printed; and it must be handwoven.
In addition, handwoven fabrics are an important export for India. The Handloom Export Promotion Council in India oversees the manufacture of handwoven fabrics using a definition similar to that of the FTC, thus maintaining the authenticity of Indian madras at the point of origin.
Often, fashion is assumed to be high fashion or only the dress of the wealthy. Paul Nystrom defined fashion as “Nothing more or less than the prevailing style at any given time.” Using this definition broadens the scope of study. For example, another target market for authentic madras is a Nigerian ethnic group known as the Kalabari. The earliest versions of madras were called Guinea stuffs and were used by the European East India Companies as currency to trade along the coast of West Africa, often referred to as the Guinea Coast. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, this ancestor of Indian madras was used as a currency to purchase ivory, copper, and slaves. The Kalabari were one of the most powerful trading entities along the Guinea Coast. They did not produce their own cloth and were prohibited by goddess Owame-Kaso from using cloth with floral and natural motifs. When checkered and plaid Guinea stuffs were introduced, they captured the collective Kalabari imagination. The Kalabari preferred specific color combinations of madras such as indigo blue, madder red, and off-white, as well as yellow, shades of green, brown, and lavender. The Kalabari knew these plaids came from India and gave them specific names, such as Real India, Real Madras Handkerchief, and injiri (which may refer to a weaving village called Injerum or may be a transliteration of the word “India”). These terms referred to madras that fulfilled the Kalabari aesthetic. Sandra Evenson describes how each step in the Indian madras manufacturing process fulfills a Kalabari requirement for authenticity in “Indian Madras Plaids as ‘Real India.’ ”
Throughout the slave trade, Indian madras served two functions—as currency and as dress. European traders exchanged Indian madras for slaves. West African traders used Indian madras as dress. Any madras that did not sell was used to clothe slaves, both on the Atlantic journey and on the plantations of South America, the Caribbean, and the American South. Even though madras was woven to specific market tastes, which defined quality for West African traders, it was still a very inexpensive fabric, considered suitable for slave wear. As a result, madras was introduced to the New World.
Madras was a key feature of slave dress in the American South. Historian Eugene D. Genovese describes brightly colored checkered and plaid cottons in the chapter “Clothes Make the Man and the Woman” in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Red and yellow were predominant colors, including madras plaids in the favored Kalabari color scheme of indigo blue, madder red, and off-white. Anthropologist Helen Bradley Foster examines the significance and fashioning of women’s headscarves in “Crowning the Person” in “New Raiments of Self”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. White people did not wear madras because of its use by slaves. Madras and other slave cloths shifted from everyday fashion to symbols of resistance, freedom, and nationality, as discussed by Steeve O. Buckridge in “Overview of the Caribbean” and “Jamaica in the Nineteenth Century to the Present” in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion.
Even after the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s, madras continued to be imported from India, via London, to the United States and the Caribbean because it was still the cheapest cloth available for purchase to clothe existing slave populations. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the introduction of power looms and colorfast dyes made it possible to manufacture imitation madras. Swiss Mills attempted to pass off imitations to the Kalabari, who were not fooled. In the United States, with the availability of low-cost, good-quality, domestic mill-woven cloth, madras imports declined and were replaced by imitation Indian madras made with American cotton picked by American slaves and tenant farmers. Meanwhile, a reduced but consistent market for madras persisted in the Caribbean through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women throughout the West Indies wore madras headscarves and men wore loose-fitting shirts and shorts, ideal foils against the tropical heat and sun.
In the late 1800s, Jamaica built an export trade in bananas to New York, Boston, and London. Tourists from these same cities soon made the return voyage. As of 1890, the Anchor Line and the Atlas Steamship Company regularly offered a passenger service from New York to Jamaica. These voyages were sufficiently established to warrant a travel guide titled The New Jamaica: Describing the Island, Explaining Its Conditions of Life and Growth and Discussing Its Mercantile Relations and Potential Importance: Adding Somewhat in Relation to Those Matters Which Directly Interest the Tourist and the Health Seeker (author’s emphasis). Tourists are interested in souvenirs of their travels.
An early example of fashionable madras is a two-piece dress from circa 1880 housed in the Museum at FIT in New York City. It is constructed of plaid cotton fabric consistent with the colors and drape of South Indian imported madras. It features a princess line with polonaise and back bustle, beautifully matched, typical of stylish women’s wear of the era. It also features the “red, white, and blue” color scheme favored by the Kalabari, which would appeal to a US customer around the time of the centennial of US independence. This madras could be imitation, but it seems more likely to be a souvenir, communicating that the wearer was wealthy enough to travel to the Caribbean and bring back exotic fabric.
In the 1920s, madras was intentionally introduced to the United States, to an entirely new market. The Industrial Revolution in the United States was at its peak in the early twentieth century. Industrialists amassed enormous fortunes, and many of these wealthy families educated their children at the most elite preparatory schools and colleges in the country, located in the northeast, such as Phillips Exeter, Andover Newton, Harvard, and Princeton. They also enjoyed expansive compounds on the New England shore, summers on the beach, and sailing and yachting. Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, only 640 miles (1,030 km) off the coast of North Carolina, were popular ports of call. In Brooks Brothers: Generations of Style: It’s All About the Clothing, John William Cooke credits Brooks Brothers with introducing a line of Indian madras garments and accessories for men in the early 1920s. Brooks Brothers is a prominent retailer, based in New York City, of tasteful, quality business wear and casual dress for men and women. It is frequented by the well-heeled and the well-to-do. Brooks Brothers’ application of Indian madras, an otherwise humble cloth of the common person, gave the fabric the imprimatur of respectability. At this time Bermuda shorts first entered the record of the history of dress—loose, knee-length trousers in cotton, perfect for boating and beach life.
Dress historians Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham introduce the factors that influenced the democratization of fashion in “The Americanization of Fashion.” After independence, Americans developed a simplicity of dress that communicated belief in democracy and liberty. With industrialization, by the end of the nineteenth century the United States had an international reputation for stylish, serviceable, well-made styles. After the horrors of World War I, fashion mirrored a joie de vivre that expressed itself in less formality and more fun. No one better exemplified this trend than Edward, the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor. The “soft look” is attributed to him, featuring less inner construction, more color, and fewer rules. The soft look was just right for sports, leisure, and fitness—which were associated with wealth in the 1930s. In “The Duke of Windsor and the Creation of the Soft Look” in Ivy Style, Peter McNeil relates the king’s fury when the Prince of Wales appeared at tea in hunting clothes and reviewed the troops in tweed jackets and American low-cut trousers instead of formalwear. Exiled after abdicating the British throne, the now Duke of Windsor favored Palm Beach and the sporting life, which included brightly colored madras golf pants. The duke knew he was a fashion leader. Like Brooks Brothers, his sartorial authority contributed to madras becoming sportswear for the cognoscenti.
Button-down madras shirts and Bermuda shorts suited the yachting and beach life of the elite in the 1930s and 1940s. Casual madras dinner jackets and bow ties became commonplace at dinner parties, blurring the line between day and evening wear for men. This blurring turned into defiance against sartorial rules. On the Ivy League campuses of Harvard and Yale, resistance took a form of antifashion—the wearing to class of those madras shirts and Bermuda shorts instead of the dark suits, white shirts, and conservative neckties of their fathers. In her chapter on “Antifashion” in A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk, art historian Bonnie English defines antifashion not as the opposite of fashion, but as an attitude toward fashion, a resistance to tradition and the social order. Antifashion movements and agents of change include the Aesthetic Movement, punk, the beat generation, and political groups like the Black Panthers. Susan Kaiser and Ryan Looysen add, in their “Antifashion” entry to the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, that antifashion is linked to a desire to “construct a bohemian space that was freer, more natural, and more authentic than dominant bourgeoisie culture.” After World War II, tradition was of less importance to youth, regardless of economic or social background. The federal government’s GI Bill contributed to the trickling down of Ivy style to college campuses across the United States because veterans attended public Land Grant universities, not the Ivy Leagues. Veterans were often older, working class, had seen something of the world, and appreciated the easy elegance of Ivy style. The democratization of madras progressed as it became an essential fixture of the classic American collegiate look in the 1950s and 1960s, as described by Patricia Mears in “Ivy Style: Heyday of the Mid-Century” in Ivy Style. She concludes that before World War II, Ivy style was fashion based on prestige; after World War II, it was egalitarian. One man’s antifashion was another man’s practicality.
Another arena in which madras held an important place in fashion was in the arts via the beat generation and jazz music. The beat generation used poetry and novels to disseminate dissatisfaction with American culture. They also preferred the antifashion of casual clothes. Dress historian Linda Welters describes the popularity of cotton checkered and plaid shirts among the beat generation, particularly Jack Kerouac, in “The Beat Generation: Subcultural Style.” Simultaneously, prior to the war, jazz was music to dance to; after the war it was music to listen to, which meant that jazz gigs on college campuses were lucrative because they didn’t require the expense of large dance halls. In his essay “A Riff: Jazz Men Take on Ivy” in Ivy Style, men’s style scholar Bruce Boyer states, “Jazz musicians began to wear the clothes they saw on campus, i.e. they adopted the Ivy League style of students and their professors.” Musicians began shopping at long-standing Ivy style clothiers such as the Andover Shop and J. Press. The democratization of fashion continued when jazz musicians took the look back to Harlem and a new target customer.
Through American jazz, Ivy style became international. The English version of Ivy style had a rough-and-ready edge. Actors like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were viewed as style idols, along with musicians Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker. While images of jazz musicians in England do not always feature madras, the authors of The Ivy Look: An Illustrated Pocket Guide: Classic American Clothing, Graham Marsh and J. P. Gaul, stress in the chapter titled “The Importance of Being Imported” that true Ivy style had to come from America. “Imported” meant “authentic.”
Indian madras as fashion or antifashion went underground in the late 1960s, emerging again in the 1980s with the preppy look—a high-status trend for a decade that embraced material wealth. Lisa Birnbach‘s The Official Preppy Handbook is thoroughly illustrated with images of, and references to, madras. She offers a brief profile of madras in the chapter on “Fashion Fundamentals” and emphasizes the characteristics of “true madras” and the importance of having the real thing. For the preppy, madras was a statement of identity.
Birnbach’s book, though tongue-in-cheek, included madras fashion for women. Up to this point, Ivy style was a menswear fashion. However, it should be noted that during World War II, when Paris was occupied and other fashion cities were at war, American sportswear for women came into its own. Designer Claire McCardell tapped into the athleticism and outdoor life considered distinctively American, and designed clever and easy daywear. She often used brightly colored cotton checks and plaids, including madras, though they may have been American imitations. By the mid-1960s, McCardell’s full-skirted madras shirt dress was a fashion standby for American women. For more on American sportswear and designers, see Sandra Stansbury Buckland‘s essay on “Promoting American Designers, 1940–1944: Building Our Own House.”
In the 1970s, as the counterculture waned and young men and women were job hunting in a tight economy, they came to understand that individuality in dress was incomprehensible to their elders with the power to hire them, as described by dress historian Patricia A. Cunningham in “Dressing for Success: The Re-Suiting of Corporate America in the 1970s.” In his 1975 book, Dress for Success, and 1977 follow-up Dress for Success for Women, business consultant John T. Malloy explained the findings of his research with corporate managers. In essence, men and women should strive for the “old money” look because it conveys authority and respectability. He uses madras sport coats, ties, and trousers as examples of appropriate dress for business casual events.
Meanwhile, antifashion was not limited to the United States. In Japan, Ivy style represented defiance against standard-issue school uniforms and confining social roles. For much of the postwar period, Japanese men endeavored to strike a balance between demonstrating their modernity with American-style clothing, and also maintaining Japanese dress traditions that fostered a strong sense of community. In the fall of 1964, Tokyo was hosting the Olympic Games, symbolizing Japan’s economic recovery and return to international affairs. However, during the summer of 1964, the high-fashion Ginza district was “infested” with Japanese teenagers wearing “strange clothing.” Japanese fashion and culture writer W. David Marx relates, “Police sent reconnaissance teams to the scene, where they discovered young men wearing shirts from thick wrinkled cloth with unusual buttons holding down the collar, suit jackets with a superfluous third button high up on the chest, loud madras and tartan plaids …” The press dubbed these “wicked” teens the Miyuki tribe and feared they would leave a bad impression on the Olympics’ guests. At the end of the summer, shortly before the opening ceremonies for the Games, police swept the Ginza, apprehending 200 youths. Like Ivy style on American college campuses, garments made of chino, tweed, and madras were favored. And there was a fashion–antifashion dichotomy: traditional Ivy was perceived as basic fashion, while the Miyuki tribe look was considered deviant. This is similar to Ivy League youth wearing madras shorts to class instead of a suit and tie. For researcher Masafumi Monden, in his book chapter “An Ivy Boy and a Preppy Girl: Style Import-Export,” Ivy style is a dominant theme in youth fashion. Japanese apparel firms strove to duplicate in every detail what they saw in hard-to-get American magazines. One firm sent a film crew to Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, and Yale, resulting in a photographic documentary of Ivy style at its zenith in 1965, Take Ivy, with madras well represented throughout. Eventually, fashionistas claimed that the Japanese brands made better American-style clothing than Americans. In fact, the title of W. David Marx’s book is Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.
After the 1980s, the nature of fashion changed. Cycles of rising and falling hemlines based on designer inspiration were replaced by looks styled for clearly defined target markets. However, because Indian madras is associated with respectable dress for the elite, it maintains its place in Brooks Brothers’ seasonal collections. Because of its association with eastern seaboard country and beach life, L.L.Bean, headquartered in Freeport, Maine, routinely includes madras in its offerings. J. Press and the Andover Shop continue to dress college students in authentic vegetable-dyed and hand-loomed madras. As described by curator Patricia Mears in “Ivy Style: Revival and Renewal” in Ivy Style, Ralph Lauren, the all-American stylist, and Thom Brown, the Ivy iconoclast, keep madras on trend on summer collections runways. (Because of Ralph Lauren’s aspirational approach to fashion, it is interesting to note models of color wearing madras in his advertisements.) Because madras is one hallmark of a quintessentially American look, its imitations are available at a broad range of price points in a variety of products with global distribution, thus completing the democratization of this American fashion.
What is it about madras that is so eternally gratifying? The handle of the fabric: the way it feels against the skin on a hot day. The colors: in cheery, high-contrast saturated hues or sun-washed pastels. The plaids: nothing floral or abstract, the reliable intersections of dyed warp and weft threads that create new colors as predictably as a child’s paint box. The way it wears: authentic cloth calls for quality manufacturing. So, even while madras softens and the colors drift into one another, the garment maintains its integrity, perhaps to be worn by another generation.
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