Check Republic

The enduring appeal of Madras check fabric

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders was faithful to the coming-of-age novel, with the snobby Socs, dressed in madras check, pitted against the Greasers.
01 June, 2015

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.”

Many modern fashion ads promise upper-class adventure: take Louis Vuitton’s 2010 “Spirit of Travel” campaign, which featured Angelina Jolie cruising down a Cambodian backwater on a wooden dinghy, the LV sack purse on her arm a passport to different worlds both physical and social. Half a century earlier, David Ogilvy, the most legendary of New York’s ad men, wrote some of the earliest ads for bleeding madras promising much the same thing. A 1954 ad by Ogilvy, for a small, family-run shirting company called Hathaway, features a camera-toting gentleman with a jaunty eyepatch and pith helmet, standing near an elephant and a dusty pink Jaipur arcade. The text promises fabrics “woven by Indian cottagers on their handlooms,” and notes that “the natural dye-stuffs used by these Indian cottagers aren’t completely color-fast—they fade a little, with washing and sunshine. This gives the shirts a look of good breeding and maturity which no mass-produced fabric can ever aspire to.” Ogilvy essentially transformed a perceived flaw into a badge of authenticity, equating the use of vegetable dyes and their concomitant imperfections with the fabric’s Indian provenance.

Many of David Ogilvy’s ads for shirting company Hathaway’s “Bleeding Madras” garments featured a man with an eyepatch, engaged in leisure activities like tourism or billiards.

Six years later, in another ad for Hathaway, Ogilvy forged a centuries-old pedigree for the fabric, reinforcing its privileged place in the symbolic universe of prep. According to an apocryphal story, popularised by Ogilvy, American prep---dom owed its madras to Elihu Yale, an eighteenth-century governor of Madras, who in 1718 donated nine bales of goods from India, including several bolts of checked madras, to help endow the fledgling Connecticut college that would go on to take his name. Though Yale did contribute bolts of plain Madrasi muslin to that initial endowment, there is no record to suggest that he donated anything resembling madras check to what became one of the great bastions of the American elite.

The Yale story happily elides the more complex, and entirely less patrician, trajectory that madras took, from the cottage industries of south India to the weekend cottages of Cape Cod. Despite—or perhaps because of—the obfuscation of its heritage, madras has become both archetypal and chameleonic, working its way through Asia and Africa, through the slave colonies of the New World, and to the socio-economic heights of New England, from which it trickled down into ordinary American street-wear through the 1980s. The last fifteen years have seen madras’s absorption into the aesthetic lexicon of the hipster urban elite, which sets authenticity as its highest value, in an appropriation that might begin to restore the fabric’s origin and complex history.

For a kid like me, growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore in the late 1990s and early 2000s, madras was just something people wore.

By the time I bought my first pair of madras shorts at Abercrombie Kids—the children’s branch of Abercrombie & Fitch, those great global purveyors of polo shirts and body dysmorphia—“bleeding madras” had disappeared, along with any interest in the fabric’s origin. Though in India today madras is still used almost exclusively for lungis, in the United States the fabric has never fully lost its pastel glimmer of tennis courts and highballs. It certainly never occurred to me that the term “madras,” pronounced in the United States to rhyme with “mattress,” referred to anything other than colourful plaids in light cottons, much less that the word actually indicated the fabric’s origins—that trochaic madras was, in fact, iambic Madras.

TEXTILES WERE AMONG THE COMMODITIES that first attracted the British East India Company to the port of Madras, and the wider region of the Madras Presidency, where the company founded its mercantile base in the seventeenth century. There is little consensus, however, on the origin of the checked pattern that today bears the name of that city and region. In her book Asian Embroidery, the Delhi-based art historian Jasleen Dhamija dates the first export of checked fabric under the name “madras” to 1660, when British merchants coined the name Real Madras Handkerchief, or RMHK, to describe eight-meter long, 36-inch-wide bolts of fabric that could be cut into three square kerchiefs (the name was a ploy that helped exporters evade taxes levied on bolts of clothing material as they entered London).

Many sources—including a 2004 essay for the New York Times titled “What Hipsters Found in Preppy Closets”—claim madras checks evolved after the arrival of the East India Company as Indian weavers transposed the patterns of Scottish tartans onto colourful cottons. In The Textile Manufactures of India—a compendium of fabric samples compiled in 1866 by a reporter named John Forbes Watson, working for the India Office in London—several of the swatches out of Madras are near perfect replicas of traditional tartans, while others appear to emulate the frequency and pattern of interlocking tartan stripes, replacing the traditional shades of deep red and forest green with indigo and ochre. Scholars like Dhamija, though, have uncovered ample evidence to suggest that checked cottons had existed in the regions of southern Andhra Pradesh and Madras for hundreds of years before the British arrived.

As early as the fifteenth century, checked cloth travelled to West Africa, where madras is still popular among tribes of the Niger Delta. Keystone / Getty Images

In an introductory paper for a seminar on madras check held in 1994 at Dakshinachitra, a craft centre outside Chennai, Dhamija points to sixteenth-century Portuguese records that describe the popularity of checked scarves called rumals among hajj pilgrims. In her book, Dhamija claims that those rumals originated in Masulipatnam—modern-day Machilipatnam—in Andhra, where they were woven as ritual textiles for cleaning the faces of temple deities before drawing the attention of Persian and Arab traders who carried them back to Mecca.

As early as the fifteenth century, other trade routes carried checked cloth into West Africa, where madras, used principally for turbans, became a totemic commodity among the Kalabari tribe in the Niger Delta. In a paper from 1990, the design scholar Sandra Lee Evanson posits that madras checks arrived in the area as early as 1400, via Portuguese maritime trade routes. By the eighteenth century, RMHK was popular among various tribes in West Africa, making the fabric a particularly valuable commodity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade well into the nineteenth century.

In an essay for the Deccan Herald, the Chennai-based textile expert Sabita Radhakrishna wrote that the “Madras handkerchief traveled to wherever the slave trade touched.” Manufactured in India and then exported to London, madras would be auctioned to traders who in turn used it to barter for slaves in West Africa. From there, much RMHK made its way to the Caribbean and the American South, where it was used, for instance, for headscarves among black women. Madras garments turn up in many depictions of slave culture from the period, including eighteenth-century paintings of slaves in the French Caribbean colonies, and in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of American slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852.

Outside Padmam Theatre in Chennai. Madras check is ubiquitous in India in both lungis and shirts. Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images

It took almost another century for madras to make its way into the hallowed halls of the colleges whose cultures of privilege it would one day come to represent. In the 1930s, wealthy American students started returning from Bermuda and the Bahamas—important points along the old British trading routes—decked out in fashionably vibrant resort-wear stitched from RMHK. As Sven Raphael Schneider, the founder of online fashion magazine the Gentleman’s Gazette, wrote in his publication, madras garments would mark returning college students out “as being wealthy enough to have visited these expensive destinations.” From there, madras grew increasingly popular as a result of brilliant marketing and the preppy world’s love of the insouciantly garish.

This is a fairly standard story of cultural appropriation, yet its several geo-cultural layers—a fabric named for an Indian city, lifted from Afro-Caribbean slave culture by wealthy white people on holiday, and popularised in magazines such as LIFE and Esquire, which entirely ignored its presence among slaves in the American South—have obscured both this history and the appropriation itself. By the time “bleeding Madras” reached the height of its popularity in the 1960s, it wasn’t just the colours that had faded with time.

ANNAKAPUTHUR, in south-west Chennai, used to be one of the many villages near Madras whose weavers specialised in checked fabric. One afternoon last February, KB Umapathy, a 50-something-year-old resident descended from a long line of weavers, took me around. “Thirty years ago it was 200 master weavers here,” he said. “Now I am the only one.” Weaving, he told me, and particularly weaving handloom madras, just isn’t profitable anymore, particularly compared to the office jobs that have multiplied in the wake of liberalisation and the IT boom.

Industrial processes have also altered demand in the United States. The designs made on the handlooms, created on the spot by the weavers, resulted in seriously limited runs of each particular checked pattern. This was one of Ogilvy’s selling points; in the 1954 ad, he wrote, “Each piece is only eight yards long—enough for three shirts. The pattern never repeats, so you will never see another man wearing the same shirt as yours.” But once madras had entered the American sartorial vocabulary, consumers no longer needed reasons to purchase the fabric. Though the “bleed” on hand-woven madras was once a valuable trait, it wasn’t long before colour-fast dyes replaced vegetable ones, bringing the vogue for “bleeding madras” to an end in the 1970s. Power looms, working from a fixed set of patterns, made viable the mass production of identical weaves, allowing more people to buy into the image of the madras-wearing bon vivant.

By the 1970s, Western markets had already turned toward machine-made madras, though the Nigerian market for handloom check—still imported under the name Real Madras Handkerchief—remained robust. In 1978, when Nigeria instituted an import ban against a variety of goods due to political instability and inflation, the last major market for the direct import of RMHK collapsed. According to Evanson, some intrepid traders set up posts in Benin, near the Nigerian border, to smuggle the fabric in. Today, West Africa remains an important export market for RMHK, much of it woven in Andhra Pradesh. But there, as in the rest of the world, the mass demand for madras has meant the rapid industrialisation of its production.

In 1985, India’s Handlooms Reservation Act gave protected status to checked, cotton lungis with a minimum width of 43 inches, but the same status did not extend to RMHK, woven at a width of 36 inches. In any case, the protections meted out by the Reservation Act have, over the years, proved virtually impossible to enforce. According to a production manager I spoke to at Co-optex, Tamil Nadu’s state-run retailer of textiles woven on handlooms, the vast majority of fabric now called madras check—some 90 percent, he guessed—is woven on power looms, either in India, China or Bangladesh. My futile attempts to reach an officer in the ministry of textiles for comment, made it clear that no one there had any idea why someone should be interested in madras check, widely considered an old casualty of the success of power looms.

There is little to prevent retailers from selling fabrics produced on power looms as handloom madras. Madras check, like all Indian textiles, lacks an official Denomination of Origin—a strictly monitored designation that, for example, makes it illegal to call sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region of France champagne. Kavita Parmar, whose Madrid-based e-commerce brand IOU sources madras directly from villages around Pondicherry and Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, where the pattern has been woven for generations, pointed out that developing such a designation would be difficult. Weaving communities have migrated over the millennia, taking skills and techniques with them, and, in the case of madras, absorbing new patterns and designs. What exactly makes madras madras is a vexed question, which has made it both easy and legal to sell virtually any colourful, checked fabric under that name. The upshot, Parmar told me during a phone interview, is that weavers are “being pushed out of the distribution system, so eventually they stop doing what they were doing, stop being artisans.”

Before I left Chennai, I had asked Parmar to connect me with weavers still producing madras by handloom. Though her suppliers are all located some distance south of the city, she directed me to a textile trader from Vellore, Jaichand Jain, who agreed to meet me in Kanchipuram, 70 kilometres south-east of Chennai, where, he said, some weavers still hand-weave madras lungis.

Ezra Koenig is the frontman of Vampire Weekend, a band that in many ways epitomises the hipster appropriation of the elite symbol of madras check. David Atlas / Retna Ltd / Corbis

I arrived in Kanchipuram on a balmy February morning after a two-hour drive along the clogged road that connects the town to Chennai. At that early hour, the string of indistinguishable showrooms selling the town’s famous silk saris had yet to open, but the local bazaar was already buzzing. In a town devoted primarily to expensive silks, the few remaining weavers of madras check lungis are relegated to the urban periphery, working at pit looms in dim workshops hidden down by-lanes with open gutters. The weavers purchase their chemical-dyed cotton yarn from dyers working in lanes adjacent to their own workshops, straighten the warp threads every morning at 7 am along the still-empty roads, then spend the better part of their days at the looms, weaving lungis in shades of blue and brown and green. The weavers I met told me that their lungis would most likely be sold on the local market for about R100 a piece.

Despite its elevation to a symbol of privilege on the other side of the globe, in and around Chennai, madras remains the most modest of patterns for the most modest of garments. In Chennai, I saw checked lungis, folded and slipped into plastic sleeves, stacked by the hundred at Co-optex outlets, where they sold for a maximum price of R280 each. Day laborers in faded madras lungis and soiled white singlets pushed handcarts. Nothing resembled the madras check I grew up with, in faded pinks and yellows and blues, or stitched together in clownish patchwork.

When Parmar started the IOU Project at the end of 2011, her hope was to resuscitate the market for verifiably hand-woven fabrics connected in a meaningful way to their origins. She described madras as “the most used, ubiquitous piece of fabric,” but said it “has lost its history. I think there are very few people on earth who don’t know what a madras plaid is—but they don’t know where it comes from.” Parmar’s website,, allows shoppers to use geo-tagged serial codes to “meet” the individual Indian weavers and European tailors who created their garments. Though Parmar’s brand is not designed specifically for consumers in the developed world, the prices—from ¤39 for a scarf to about ¤100 for a sundress—and the focus on ethical trade and labour practices, have attracted its largest audiences in Japan, Europe and the United States. Demography aside, the brand’s primary goal is to put the artisans at the centre of the distribution process, bringing them the attention they deserve for their skill and, with luck, bolstering their pride in the craft itself.

WHEN I ARRIVED AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY as an undergraduate in 2006, the band of the moment happened to be a set of recent alumni calling themselves Vampire Weekend. Their music combined a singular preoccupation with old signifiers of preppy culture—Cape Cod, their own Ivy League erudition—with a joyful appropriation of West African rhythms. Their diverse family backgrounds—the four band-members are Ukranian, Hungarian, Italian and Persian, respectively—subverted the ethnic hegemony of the American old guard, even while their look—bow ties, blazers and plaid—and their educational credentials marked them as inheritors of that legacy. They were gold-star members of New York’s young urban elite, which was and is still disproportionately fed by the same institutions that fed the old one. But by then, the semiotics of prep had changed: hipsters used the symbols of prep to mock the desire for membership in an outmoded elite, while also indicating membership in a new one based on cultural rather than financial capital and tied more closely to taste than to race.

In his essay “What Was the Hipster,” taken from a book of the same name and published in New York magazine in 2010, the writer and editor Mark Greif described the “hipster primitive,” an aesthetic drawn from an idealised pastoral hinterland, replete with beards and flannels and lumberjack plaids. In this period, according to Greif, “hipster approval of locavore food (because local c heeses and grass-fed beef are expensive, rare, and knowledge-intensive) brings elitism to the left-environmentalist campaign for deindustrialized agriculture.” Prep made its way into the hipster paradigm around the same time.

Greif argued then that hipster culture was already dying out; five years on, the hipster as Greif describes him might as well be dead, but the beards, bowties, glasses, tattoos and all the effluvia of geek chic (including, of course, madras) remain, to some extent, in vogue. Today, what Greif describes as “the rebel consumer”—the person who “convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive”—has been replaced by the ethical consumer, who convinces herself that buying the right mass products individualises her as engaged and aware, as someone with agency in the consumer cycle.

When we spoke last month, a year after our first conversation, Parmar credited the success of IOU to a similar individualism. The rising demand for what she calls “mass customisation” has created a booming market for products that can be made at scale but that, through the accumulation of small individual details—runs of fabric that can produce no more than three shirts, for instance—reinforce the consumer’s belief in his own essential singularity. Members of the new elite use a similar type of “mass customisation” to fill in the sketchy outlines of their political identities, picking and choosing from a ready-made set of causes to define themselves. They may focus on eating local and seasonal, or on avoiding gluten and dairy. Others may seek out organic cottons and fair-trade silks. They, to a one, embrace the belief that consumerism can affect real change. If you take the cynical view, as I often do, this obsession with moralistic capitalism is simply the latest marketing trend, a signifier of inclusion in the upper class, just as “bleeding madras” was half a century ago. But it may also be key to saving India’s handlooms.

In the recent debates over the Handloom Reservation Act, the power loom lobby has pointed to the greater efficiency and potential profits from its sector, which already accounts for 60 percent of textile production in India, while the handloom sector, for the most part, has relied on softer arguments to bolster its case. Weaving primarily employs women, it requires virtually no energy resources, and, by providing village-based employment, the industry can help stem the ongoing flood of rural migration to India’s over-burdened cities. And a softer argument still: handlooms are an ancient cultural inheritance, and the loss of a distinct weaving or dying technique is no less a blow to our collective human heritage than the loss of a language. These points matter, but they’re also unlikely to convince a middle class customer that she should spend more to purchase khadi. And anyway, to most middle-class consumers in India the differences between handloom and power loom products are indistinguishable, so much so that retailers all over the country routinely sell power loom products as handloom ones. The people I spoke to who work closely with handlooms, either in the NGO sector or as scholars of Indian craft, agreed that, for the industry to survive, it will have to focus on the luxury market—a market driven, at least at this historical moment, by the cult of authenticity.

As the idea of ethical consumerism infiltrates India’s young, globalised urban elite, high-end local brands such as 11.11 and péro have chosen to build their identities around handloom fabrics and intelligent, responsible engagement with indigenous craft techniques. Both brands market their lines of elegant, casual street-wear to a wealthy, globally informed audience. On its website, 11.11 says of its garments, which, like bleeding madras, alter with wear, “being surrounded by natural, changing, unique objects helps us to connect to an authentic reality.” The promises here are not substantially different from those offered by Hathaway half a century ago: this product connects you to the world.

The question vis-à-vis madras in India is whether or not consumers on the subcontinent will accept the pattern as worthy of the extra attention and cost that fashion-forward urbanites now willingly lavish on other traditional styles, like bandhani and ikat. Resuscitating the market for handloom madras will essentially require bringing the fabric’s cultural history full circle, reintroducing it to the place that birthed it not as lungis or saris, but as a shorthand for inclusion in the global luxury marketplace, where ideas and morals and products are now so thoroughly conflated.

How much any of this really matters depends entirely on your perspective. For those weavers still earning their livelihoods by weaving madras it surely matters a great deal. And this, ultimately, is the carefully calibrated ethical argument forwarded by companies like IOU: if we invest so much energy in establishing detailed pedigrees for lettuce and eggs and macrobiotic wines, then surely it makes sense to learn something more about the provenance of a textile and the human hands that made it. To quote Vampire Weekend, those paragons of hipster prep, “No excuse to be so callous/ Dress yourself in bleeding madras.”   

Michael Snyder  graduated from Columbia University in 2010. He has written on food, travel, the arts and urban development in the United States, India and South America.