Bleeding Mad: The Colourful History of Madras

Ralph Lauren madras shirt
Image credit: Robert Sheie / CC BY 2.0

The history of clothing is littered with stories of happy accidents and moments of inspiration. Paul Sperry finally figured out how to make his boat shoes work after seeing his dog running around in the New England winter. Kikuo Ibe similarly cracked the design for the Casio G-SHOCK after seeing a girl bouncing a ball in a park. Then there was the moment — who knows exactly when it happened — when Levi Strauss decided to stop making tents and use his denim material to make trousers instead. Or when Benjamin Russell Jr. serendipitously decided to turn a women’s union suit into a new kind of sweatshirt for men. 

The trends and tastes which dictate the way we dress are moved along via this pioneering process of trial and error. But sometimes those errors can be pretty grave — and the attendant payoffs better than expected.

In 1958, Brooks Brothers, the longtime bastion of blue-blooded American menswear, bought some 10 000 yards of a trendy up-and-coming textile known as madras. The fabric was light, breezy, and dyed in vivid, eye-catching plaids. They had procured it for $1 per yard from Madras in India (present-day Chennai) from a local textile exporter called Captain C. P. Krishnan Nair. 

With the deal closed, Brooks Brothers set about making jackets and trousers that they sold stateside for $50 a pop. The problem came when disgruntled customers complained of these fancy new garments furiously bleeding colour and ruining every piece of clothing within reach, the madras garb included. Brooks Brothers, themselves caught unawares, in turn appealed to Captain Nair, apparently summoning him to the United States under threat of legal action.

It turns out that a transcontinental game of broken telephone had resulted in a crucial miscommunication. Captain Nair had apparently warned that the fabric in question required the utmost care when laundering — gentle wash and cold water only, please — to prevent the vegetable dyes from running. Unfortunately, his injunction was lost along the way, leaving Brooks Brothers with a brightly-coloured mess on their hands.

No matter, though: Apparently a certain type of PR nightmare is really just a marketing coup in disguise. In a brilliant show of ingenuity and composure, Captain Nair swiftly turned around to give an interview with Seventeen Magazine, complete with glossy photo spread, in which he spoke of a miracle fabric from India known as madras that was made exclusively for Brooks Brothers in New York. What’s more, he clearly stated that items made with this incredible fabric were, as the labels soon attested, ‘guaranteed to bleed’. Problem solved: Overnight an ostensible flaw was transformed into an essential feature and Brooks Brothers was inundated with thousands of requests for items made from the miracle material that is madras.

Madras shirt men's style
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Of course, the textile was not tailor-made for bougie American shoppers browsing the aisles of Brooks Brothers. In fact — somewhat ironically given the nature of its US clientele — in madras’s country of origin, it isn’t all that popular and is seen primarily as a textile worn by the labouring classes.

I have written at length about the history of cotton elsewhere, but suffice it to say that India has been a pivotal part of the global cotton supply chain for centuries. Cotton textiles have been produced on the subcontinent for over four millennia and from as early as 1621, for example, the British East India Company was exporting somewhere in the order of 50 000 pieces of cotton cloth to Britain from India per annum. By the time Brooks Brothers was sourcing cotton madras in the mid-twentieth century, India was producing about 6 billion yards of cotton fabric every year, with about half of it being woven by hand.

Madras itself is traditionally hand-loomed and dyed using those dastardly unstable vegetable dyes mentioned previously. These days, however, the bleeding style of madras is hard to come by since stable dyes have almost entirely replaced them. Historically speaking, madras also came in both plain or patterned forms, but the plaid variety favoured in the West first gained popularity in the nineteenth century when George IV’s paid a historic visit to Scotland in 1822, causing a tartan-inspired plaid fad to sweep the nation’s colonies. 

The textile first reached American shores long before the Brooks Brothers mishap made a splash. Thanks to a donation made to the Collegiate School of Connecticut by the controversial Governor of Madras, Elihu Yale, in 1718 a yardage of madras was included in an endowment to the institution that would eventually lead to it being named in that donor’s honour. 

There is perhaps a neat historical symmetry in madras becoming a prep staple centuries later since the style in question has primarily been associated with students who attended colleges like Yale in the mid-twentieth century. Among this collegiate crew at the time, there was no end to the items you could deck out on this vibrant plaid. As Bruce Boyer recalls:

‘The options still boggle my mind all these years later. There was, as I’ve mentioned, a trend for madras: not just sports jackets and trousers, but also shorts, bow ties, hat bands, swim trunks, sports shirts, even watch wristbands done in the colorful “bleeding” cotton cloth from India.’

Brooks Brothers madras bow tie
Image credit: Elvert Barnes / CC BY-SA 2.0

It was enough to forever enshrine madras in the arsenal of Ivy-inflected Americana (Lest there be any doubt about this, it even constitutes the trim on the cover of The Official Preppy Handbook). Its light weight, airy feel, and cheery aesthetic have also made it a perennial must-have in warm weather. I have long had a weakness for the stuff myself, chiefly as part of a continued effort to exist in permanent Bill-Murray-in-Moonrise-Kingdom cosplay. It has meant that I’ve spent far too much money buying the stuff over the years such that, as a new supply of plaid-covered, mad-coloured madras makes its way into my home this spring, each solecistic label may as well read: ‘Guaranteed to bleed you dry’.