Golden Years: Richard Press on Bleeding Madras

Pop-Up Prep, a multimedia fashion presentation of Tommy Hilfiger and Lisa Birnbach, popped up recently in Lower Manhattan with the slogan “Nothing proclaims preppy like patchwork madras print.”

It should only be so easy.

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 that fully justifies Lisa Birnbach’s encomium even though it’s not a Hilfiger-Birnbach product. 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

9 Comments on "Golden Years: Richard Press on Bleeding Madras"

  1. Hilfiger and Birnbach… a match made in style taxidermy hell.

    The shawl-collared one pictured above is most excellent, though.

  2. Christian | June 1, 2011 at 11:33 am |

    Just realized I broke one of the great rules of journalism. I should’ve started Madras Week with Richard’s column.

    If it bleeds, it leads.

  3. Mr. Press I was just wondering if you went into the Rugby store recently? If so i was going to give them a call regarding the madras blazer you mentioned.

  4. Not to take this off topic but Welch Margretson what a great old company, beautiful challis, madders, foulards, even decent club ties and regimentals. Also braces and robes. Those folks did great stuff.

  5. Jim Kelleth | June 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm |

    I have some madras ties from Press and still own one from Trimingham’s (how old can that be?). This week, we went from quasi-Spring right into Summer here in Newport. Time to break them out!

  6. Trimingham’s closed in 2005. Fordor’s 1961 Guide to the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda stated that the store
    had a ” wide selection of bargains including doe-skin gloves, perfume, English handbags and Madras sportswear”

  7. Not terribly relevant to the present post, but I thought it deserved to be shared with member of the coterie:

    “Ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls”.

  8. Very preppy indeed. Madras , and especially bleeding madras is so reminescent of the good old sixties classy times.When fashion was more about casual class.
    I bought some madras patchwork at:, and they said they are launching bleeding madras plaid fabric , by the yard.

  9. I know I’m late to the party, but this blows my mind! It’s too long a tale to get into as to why, but while searching for info about madras, I have come across this post by Mr. Press.

    The mention of crawling through a warehouse to unearth dusty bolts of madras brought back memories of going through the upstairs storage rooms at the store on 44th with Benjy (that’s what we called him back then) and finding dusty treasures from days gone by. Ben was a great guy and a good friend – I still have the scarf he gave me, just for mentioning I liked it; which turned out to be a scarf from Pierson, my dad’s college @ Yale.

    Anyway, it’s great to “speak” to you again, Mr. Press; this will be one of my regular stops for future reading. I’m glad you’re sharing some history from one of, if not The, greatest figures in sartorial history.

    Henry Babcock

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