Indian Madras: Spoilt to Perfection

March 2023 | Written by Nicholas Sarnella

Madras fabric hails from the Southern Indian city of Chennai, formerly Madras, and is perhaps the most instantly recognisable cloth in the Ivy League pantheon. A quick flick through some of the noteworthy literature and publications dedicated to the classic style from the last few years, such as Reel Art Press’ ‘Hollywood and The Ivy Look’, ‘Jazz Festival’ or Graham Marsh and JP Gaul’s excellent, “The Ivy Look” handbook, will reveal the prevalence of madras fabric in all manner of garments throughout the 1960s. Madras could be seen in soft shouldered Ivy Jackets and trousers, narrow square end ties, shorts, and of course its most iconic iteration, the Madras Button down shirt.

But what exactly is Indian Madras and what does it look like? Typically, Madras fabric is handloomed on narrow looms, utilising several different yarns to produce plaid fabrics with different shades and hues. As a result of the hand-loomed process, authentic Madras will feature a slightly coarse texture, with minute flecks and textural anomalies adding to its character. In turn, the overall feel of any true Madras garment will soften considerably over time after repeated washes.

In addition to its distinctive texture, Indian Madras was originally produced from non-colour fast, vegetable dyed yarns, which would bleed and mix in a subtle fashion after laundering, hence the term “Bleeding madras”, a phrase which will surely be familiar to all those with a penchant for buying vintage. Bleeding Madras is less common nowadays, being largely replaced by colour-fast alternatives to meet the needs of modern laundry habits and practices. In an article written by our very own proprietor, John Simons, entitled ‘Madras Memories’ John recalls his experience at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France during the early 1960s where “All the guys were hanging out in their Bleeding Madras shirts, the colours reflecting Summer.”

At John Simons, ever the stalwarts of classic menswear with an eye placed firmly on the future, we stock a range of items in both Bleeding and Non-Bleeding Indian Madras, all of which is hand-loomed and authentically produced in India. Our most iconic madras garment is undoubtedly our beloved Madras Button Down shirts, available in a range of patterns, both in short and long sleeve iterations, and featuring classic Ivy League details such as a three button collar with generous roll, flap pocket, locker loop, box pleat and a classic fit.

How to wear Madras? Madras, due to its lightweight nature and bright colours is most typically thought of as a Spring/Summer fabric. Indeed, this is the most classic approach and one which is supported by John, who commenting on the Madras Button down notes how when “Teamed up with your favourite pair of Levi’s and a pair of well-worn sneakers, they really hit the spot.” This casual, Summery approach which surely serve fans of the Ivy League look well. However, Madras is not restricted solely to warm weather wear. Indeed, a long sleeve Madras Button down can add the perfect splash of colour, when worn upon a white crew neck t-shirt and under a thick Shetland wool jumper during the winter months. The proper application of such a look will see a touch of collar roll and cuff emanating from one’s sweater in a fashion that would make even Mose Allison green with envy.

Artwork: Harald Donoghue

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