The history of the plaid cotton fabric dates back to the turn of the 20th century when it became an informal sporting costume of the Raj. It was British Colonial long before Holden Caulfield enrolled at Pencey.
Brooks Brothers introduced the fabric to America in 1920. Not to be outdone by his competitor, my grandfather Jacobi Press followed shortly thereafter, initiating a longterm trade agreement with Welch Margretson, manufacturers headquartered in London, who supplied him with a wide range of clothing, furnishings and haberdashery made exclusively for J. Press, including “Indian Madras recreational shirts and bathing wear.”
Madras went ballistic 30 years later in our New Haven and Cambridge stores, only to be joined by further promotion at Brooks Brothers and Trimingham’s in Bermuda. Hideaways from Northeast Harbor to Martha’s Vineyard and Newport began flowing rivers of bleeding madras.
Entering the family business in 1959, I used to accompany my uncle Irving Press on his buying trips around New York. He was a legend in menswear and possessed an uncanny knack to stimulate resources he nurtured and assisted to maturity.
A poignant example was the mill jobber who specialized in textiles from India out of a shabby warehouse facility off lower Sixth Avenue. I remember crawling under the boards to salvage untended and wrinkled bolts of ancient madras that my uncle transformed into classics of the Golden Age. Remains of the day exist only in ancestral closets, vintage shops or textile museums.
Madras survivors reminiscent of the era are helter-skelter nowadays and not likely found either on Madison Avenue, Nantucket or the malls. I did find a classic example in Ralph Lauren’s Rugby shop in Greenwich. It was one of three remaining from last year, but passed the test for authenticity with its label marked “Colors will run; clean or wash separately.” The RL spectacular mansion/store a couple of doors down the street had a magnificently inked and dyed sportcoat that was unfortunately sized like a Victorian girdle.
O’Connell’s comes through with a well designed patchwork madras sportcoat. Definitely more New England boarding school than — ugh — preppy.
Brooks Brothers has little to offer other than a random selection of walk shorts, shirts and bathing suits in the madras category, but as in olden days a glimpse of something shocking comes through at my old J. Press stomping grounds with a very effective sport coat presentation in bold multicolor madras that looks like it derived from a yacht club awning.
There may be pop-ups of madras apparitions from Wal-Mart to Polo. Cut and sewn patches are six furlongs in a longer race. Inked and dyed real madras can only be birthed by hand and cannot be produced in large quantities. The cloth is fragile and not successfully tailored by computer. A bleeding madras that has been bled in an unforgiving wash basin can be imitated only by a poet.
The challenge remains for a smart retailer who can meet the demanding craft requirements to whet the palate of a discerning niche clientele. Do it, and there won’t be any bleeding remainders left on the racks. — RICHARD PRESS