LIKE MANY AMERICAN KIDS, I read SE Hinton’s angsty Bildungsroman The Outsiders in middle school. First published in 1967, the book features teenage characters with names like Ponyboy, Sodapop and Cherry, who drink and smoke and get into knife fights. The boys belong to two rival gangs, divided along socio-economic lines: the Greasers—the eponymous “Outsiders”—characterised by their long hair and leather biker jackets; and the Socs, short for “Socials,” who have “good grades, good cars, good girls, madras and Mustangs and Corvairs.”
“Madras” here refers to the Socs’ predilection for clothing made of madras check, a fabric that was, and is, a powerful metonym for preppy fashion—that whole peculiar complex of styles and affectations with its roots in the Ivy League and Country Club cultures of the north-eastern United States. The Official Preppy Handbook, an obscenely popular satirical guidebook first published in 1980, used madras checks on its dust jacket, as did Christine Nunn’s Preppy Cookbook, published over 30 years later. The book Tipsy in Madras is not a long-lost Graham Greene novel, but rather, as its subtitle proudly proclaims, “A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking.” In 2011, a website called Ivy Style launched its summer season coverage with what it called “Madras Week,” and in July 2013, the New York Times published a story titled “Preppy Drinks Never Go Out of Style” featuring a cocktail called—you guessed it—The Madras.
Before entering the annals of American prep in the 1950s, madras check swimming trunks had appeared as early as the 1930s in the so-called “Palm Beach” look, named for the coastal Florida town where the American aristocracy vacationed. Through the 1950s, madras appeared with increasing frequency in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Gentry, its surging popularity inspired in part by ads for “bleeding Madras” shirts that, thanks to their non-colour fast vegetable dyes, were “guaranteed to bleed.”