In September 1746, the British succumbed to a French attack on Madras (now Chennai) as part of a larger struggle for the control of India. But the Battle Of Madras is notable less for its strategic importance than for the fame it bestowed on Robert Clive, a brave and enterprising young clerk who was a buyer (in today’s retail parlance) for the East India Company.
Imprisoned by the French, Clive led the escape of a small group of inmates by disguising themselves as natives and fleeing to Fort St. David. Clive enlisted, eventually rising to the rank of major-general, the French were defeated, and Clive’s leadership became key to East India Company’s domination of a huge swath of territory resulting in the establishment of the British Raj.
Whatever view of history one takes, it’s hard to dispute that without the meeting (clash?) of cultures in British India we wouldn’t have that most cherished lightweight fabric that takes its name from the city that Clive fled 269 years ago, and in honor of the longstanding connection between madras the fabric, Madras the city, and the month of September — not to mention that it’s still damned hot outside — I intend to keep my summery madras clothing in rotation for the foreseeable future.
We’re all eager to pull out our tweed jackets, but for me, in this still-warm weather, when I see models on retail websites sporting their wintery (not even autumn) outfits, I feel my madras shirt begin to dampen with sweat. Companies have to stay ahead of the curve, so I don’t begrudge them for advertising F/W clothes while it’s still warm, but I’ve already seen guys walking around the streets with wool sweaters on 90-degree days. Talk about being fashion forward. On the other, more offensive extreme, some fellows wear shorts and t-shirts for the entire year, no matter how cold it gets. That’s worse, but that’s not me and that’s not the readers here, thank heaven.
As an act of rebellion against a sloppy world, I can respect the impulse to button down, tie on, and don a tweed jacket once Labor Day passes by. Not sure how sane that impulse is, but OK. I’d argue that in 2015 it’s as much an act of rebellion to wear a madras buttondown tucked in, yet still remain comfortable in warm, early-fall weather.
Unlike Robert Clive, I won’t be disguising myself in native dress (meaning, of course, shorts and t-shirt) to escape the September heat. In the interim period between seersucker season (I have, however, begun to pack my seersucker away — I’m no anarchist) and wool weather, I’m planning to rely on more subdued madras shirts in autumnal colors such as orange and yellow, reflecting the changing foliage but avoiding the heat exhaustion.
When it gets slightly cooler, oxford cloth can make its appearance. As for tweed jackets? See you in October. Maybe. — DANIEL C. GREENWOOD
Top image, Bill Murray in “Moonrise Kingdom”
Bottom image, Robert Clive