The madras shirt is a bit of an unsung classic. These breezy checked shirts have been a firm mainstay on the Oi Polloi roster for years now, but for some reason we’ve never written about them before… until now. Seeing as a rather nice Engineered Garments version just tipped up, here’s a rough history of this most majestic summertime shirt.
Grab yourself one of those massive elephant’s-ear naan breads and dig in…
The term ‘check shirt’ covers a fairly wide spectrum. For winter, there’s the woollen warmth of the Pendleton Board shirt - for autumn (and maybe spring), there’s the classic comfort of the brushed flannel shirt… but when the frost thaws and the sun finally emerges, the casual class of the humble madras shirt reigns supreme.
Lightweight… breezy… colourful… and if that wasn’t enough, they’ve got quite an interesting back-story too.
Things started off right back in the 17th century, when a band of traders on the quest for calico cotton landed in India. After a fairly underwhelming search, they finally happened upon a small fishing town called Madraspatnam (AKA Madras — now known as Chennai) which was running a side-line in loosely woven vegetable dyed muslin. A trading post was set up and soon this lightweight, breathable fabric was making waves in Europe.
A fairly low-tech cotton fabric might not sound that earth-shattering by today’s progressive standards – but back in those damp, rustic days of thick, itchy wool, this free and easy modern fabric from the new world would have been a real revelation – especially during the stifling summer months.
The details of why madras later became synonymous with tartan patterns is a bit murky – but the accepted story is that thanks to a few royal visits to Scotland in the early 1800s, the British gentry, keen to emulate their blue-blooded idols, were gripped with tartan fever. The upshot? An insatiable thirst for tartan madras jackets, shirts and pretty much everything else.
Around this time it seems the rules of madras were laid down. To be a truly authentic, 100% bonafide madras shirt, the fabric needed to be hand-woven, with the same pattern on both sides. And sort of like how real bubbly must hail from the Champagne region of France, madras must hail from the chunk of India that gives it its name.
Luckily, the madras story does get a bit more interesting. Whilst in India madras was seen as a symbol of the peasant class, over in Europe it was seen as the height of sophistication due to its exotic qualities.
This twisted logic applied in the U.S.A. too, and by the 1930s our minted American cousins were smugly strolling around in madras shirts and jackets purchased on expensive holidays as a sneaky way of saying, “I’ve been to some places that you probably haven’t.”
Nowhere was this phenomenon more prominent than the wood-panelled halls of the Ivy League universities – where, along with khaki chinos, Shetland jumpers and Bass Weejun penny loafers, the checked madras shirt (and its more flamboyant brother, the three-button madras jacket), became part of the unofficial uniform.
As a bit of a curious side-note, in 1958 the classic Ivy outfitter Brooks Brothers bought 10,000 yards of madras fabric without realising that the vegetable dyed fabric needed to be washed. After cutting it all up into fancy shirts, shorts and jackets, they sold a yacht-load of them. All good – until they started getting angry letters from countless customers saying how the sharp and punchy colours had ran and their stuff was a muted shadow of its former self.
Realising they had a minor marketing disaster on their dye-soaked hands, they flipped the whole thing around by organising press interviews stating the dodgy cloth was some sort of special, exclusive fabric, ‘Guaranteed to Bleed.’ It sold like plaid hot-cakes.
“Along with khaki chinos, Shetland jumpers and Bass Weejun penny loafers, the checked madras shirt became part of the unofficial Ivy uniform.”
Meanwhile, in Japan – a young designer called Kensuke Ishizu, bored of kimonos and pagodas, was looking to the west for inspiration. Even as early as the late 40s this forward thinking chap was making reproductions of U.S. Army general issue pocket t-shirts and blue jeans, and by the early 60s he’d released a full range of Ivy-inspired garb under the name VAN JACKET.
In the spring of 1964 this fresh style was picked up by a weekly men’s magazine called Heibon Punch, and was instantly hoovered up by Japan’s inner city teens desperate for something new.
This uniform, considered the height of laid-back sophistication in the States, became the peak of rowdy rebellion in Japan, and soon a gang of Madras clad teens called the Miyuki Zoku (‘Miyuki’ for the street they congregated on, and ‘Zoku’, meaning tribe) became public enemy number one.
The clothes were banned from schools, and such was the hatred for these seemingly everyday garments that the followers often resorted to sneaking their Ivy-wares out of the house in paper bags to avoid their parents’ suspicions, before changing in public toilets.
With the Olympics scheduled in Tokyo that autumn, the authorities were on overdrive trying to rid the streets of the finger-clicking, gum-chewing Miyuki Zoku which were tarnishing the respectable city.
VAN-man Ishuzu was ordered by the police to organise a Warriors-esque meet-up outside his flagship shop and deliver a speech deterring the teens from lollygagging on the pavements. When this didn’t work – a plainclothes police pincer movement snared over 200 Miyuki Zoku – with nearly 100 sent to the clink.
Whilst this put an end to the lurking, by that point the damage was done and the teens of Japan were firmly hooked on their vision of American splendour. Kensuke Ishizu’s classic book, Take Ivy, published the following year (a particularly selective view of how the students of the Ivy League actually dressed), helped seal the deal.
Since then, the madras has weaselled its way nicely into everyday life - no doubt helped by the Midas touch of Ralph Lauren and his omnipresent prep-addled POLO line. No longer the sole preserve of colonial Brits and moneyed Harvard hep-cats – it’s now available to anyone craving summer-shirt satisfaction.
A fabric from India, modelled after Scottish tartan, popular in Ivy League universities and re-appropriated by Japanese rebels… oh yeah – and it shares its name with a mighty fine curry.
Not bad for a bit of cotton.
Here’s a few spicy shirts… (to be honest a few of them aren’t made from 100% authentic madras fabric, but they’re all pretty tasty).