I stood in Nalli in Chennai asking a group of employees if they had any “madras cloth.” Nalli is perhaps the largest retailer of textiles in India, and since the cloth I asked for is named for the very city I was in—Chennai is the modern name for old Madras—surely I had come to the right place.
But asking for “madras fabric” in Madras is somewhat like ordering “Chinese food” in Shanghai. (Had I re-read my Bruce Boyer I would have remembered it’s called “sixty-forty” cloth locally.) I finally did find what I was looking for in a Chennai handiworks store, one that sells handmade goods mostly to tourists like me.
Real madras cloth still comes from the Chennai area and the surrounding state of Tamil Nadu, a major textile center of India. Traditionally hand-loomed, madras is a home-craft like Harris tweed is in the Hebrides, and was a cloth for everyday folk.
Madras is all cotton, lightweight, and comes in a slightly slubby, imperfect weave, with a hand that you will recognize immediately when you know it. True madras ought to wrinkle easily, and not be overly crisp. The old stuff was “bleeding” madras due to the vegetable dyes used, which created a soft, washed-out appearance over time. Modern madras is typically colorfast.
Since it comes from semi-tropical India, most people wear madras in the summer. You’ll find it often in colorful plaids, but a plaid design isn’t a necessary feature. There’s also striped madras, and it can even come in solids, although I’ve never seen solid madras in the wild.
Madras cloth was introduced into the US by—who else?—Brooks Brothers over a hundred years ago. Madras caught on in resorts and eventually was picked up by campus shops. It really took off on college campuses in the 1950s; you’ll find diligent (and non-diligent) students wearing it in the legendary campus book Take Ivy.
Lisa Birnbach called madras the one “quintessentially Preppy fabric” in The Official Preppy Handbook. But don’t let that put you off madras.
Even if you cringe at some of the more extreme “go-to-hell” madras trousers or sport coats, madras plaid is wonderful for sport shirts, shorts, and ties (long or, especially, bow). The daring may even try a madras bow tie or cummerbund (another item of Indian origin) with a dinner jacket at a festive event.
That madras fabric that I searched for so diligently in Chennai has since been pressed into service as bow ties. I still have a small stash as yet unused. It’s like having summer in reserve.