Kicking off the spring season in style, our friend G. Bruce Boyer ruminates on that enduring staple of American style: the madras check.
You could write a book on the history of cotton. Several have been, the best being Sven Beckert’s majestic Empire of Cotton (Vintage Books, 2014). Beckert elaborately traces the history of this most important international commodity from antiquity to the present, putting reasonable emphasis on how European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen guided imperial expansion and technology to construct the world’s most significant manufacturing industry.
We don’t need a lot of facts and figures, do we? Not among friends. Suffice it to say that starting in the 16th century, European interests began to organize the world’s cotton business, which, as Beckert says, “created an enormous further push toward global economic integration and continues to shape and reshape our world today.” As early as 1621, the British East India Company was importing an estimated 50,000 pieces of cotton cloth into England from India each year. Within 50 years the number had grown to half-a-million pieces. The steady increase of the Indian hand-weaving industry since then makes the mind boggle a bit. By the mid-20th century, India was producing about 6 billion yards of cotton fabric annually, half of it hand-woven on an estimated 5 million hand-powered looms. The symbolic spinning wheel at the centre of the Indian national flag ain’t there for nothing.
Cotton fabric has been spun, woven, and dyed on the Subcontinent for over 4,000 years, and India remains today one of the largest growers of this “white gold”. Much Indian cotton is “madras” (named after the historical primary city of export), a traditional handwoven, lightweight, fine yarn-dyed cotton in either solid colours, random stripes, or plaids. Originally the yarn was coloured with vegetable dyes that weren’t stable and tended to bleed into each other, producing new, uncontrollable effects every time the fabric was washed. Today stable dyes are used. The cloth itself has a lovely, silky soft hand, but is surprisingly stronger than gauzier or loosely woven cottons, so it launders well.
Madras became the staple of summer Ivy Style gear in the 1950s, the finished cloth being fashioned for virtually every article of warm-weather wear, from ties and trousers to shirts and sports coats, boxer underwear, hatbands and watchbands, belts, walk shorts, even dinner jackets and athletic supporters. This tsunami of style was eventually seen to be a tad over the top, and a reaction of denim mania in the 1960s and 70s put something of a damper on the fabric in many quarters. But classic dressers have kept madras in their hearts, and today madras is returning to its rightful place as essential equipment in the summer wardrobe, taking the form of extremely urbane softwear. A perfect example of the genre is the patchwork sports jacket. There’s a certain whimsical gesture about it, worn with jeans or khakis, button down or polo shirt, with or without a tie, it provides a spirited sartorial excursion that rather proves the dictum that happiness isn’t a destination, it’s the way you travel.