It’s that bright plaid one, tucked between your ho-hum Oxfords. The one you reach for whenever the mercury tops 90º. Good old magical Madras.
The first time we wore it was back in the Sixties, when we were in sixth grade. We had a shirt, Bermuda shorts, belt, bucket hat – the whole Madras kit – and we even wore them all at the same time, a time or two, until somebody wised us up. Madras was such a fad back then, it felt almost like a religion.
We even had a bleeding Madras shirt. When those came out in the Fifties, some customers were dismayed at the way the bright colors faded. The popularity of the shirts was threatened. Then David Ogilvy, that most brilliant of mad men, came up with this headline:
Magical things happen to this shirt when you wash it.
Before long, a faded madras shirt was a fashion must. It was popular in all the warm weather vacation hot spots, from Bermuda to Miami Beach to Catalina Island. In January 1960, the Wall Street Journal reported that madras shirts and sport jackets were the hottest thing in menswear.
Alas, nothing that burns so bright burns for long. Madras reached its peak of popularity in the Sixties, then faded a bit into the comfortable position it occupies today as a bright, cheerful summer standby in every man’s closet.
It thumbs its nose at technology – one reason why we like it so much. It is still woven in dozens of tiny villages in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras). It may be woven by hand or by machine, but either way, it still has the distinctive, one-of-a-kind look it has always had, often with its fair share of slubs.
Lore has it that the famous plaids came to India by way of Scotland. Some of the colonial troops of the eighteenth century wore their traditional plaid kilts, and the local villagers created their own interpretations of those plaids in sunny colors that better suited the sub-tropical climate, just as the muted plaids of the Scots suited the stormy Highlands.
Today the plaids are hand-dyed or cone-dyed, sometimes using the same vegetable dyes that have been used for centuries. But it’s not just the process that matters, it’s the result – the most charismatic color combinations that have ever been woven into fabric, colors that almost defy description, but never fail to lift our spirits by transporting us to a more carefree place and time, where sunsets linger and mojitos never run dry.
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