Golden Years: Richard Press on Bleeding Madras

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

27 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”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0tosCRdEnI

  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: http://store.fabrics-textiles.com, 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

  10. Love Bleeding Madras plaids. What is there not to love? Vintage, preppy, classy and colorful. I get my own shirts made of bleeding madras fabric, which I get from https://fabriconlinestore.com, and they make me look real dapper.

  11. Vern Trotter | June 15, 2020 at 4:56 pm |

    Jake,

    This material from the place in Rego Park (Queens) looks very nice. Now all I need is somewhere to get coats, pants, shirts made. Thanks.

  12. john carlos | June 15, 2020 at 5:21 pm |

    I’m wearing a madras shirt, khakis and Aldens today. My Summer uniform.

  13. Wearing madras is like swing dancing: impossible to be in a bad mood.

  14. elder prep | June 15, 2020 at 8:42 pm |

    Ol Prof, love the “Ivy covered Professors . . . ditty from Tom Lerher. Great stuff.

  15. I must say, I love the idea of wearing a madras dinner jacket as at-home “host” wear. Such a niche use, but a wonderful idea. I’d seen one before, but hadn’t imagined that function, so spurned it (thinking of it as another excessive way of casual-izing black tie events). But as a home host’s jacket is a wonderful idea! I have every intention to host old-fashioned dinner parties once, God willing, I have my own place in the future (I think I’m younger than most here), and I adore the idea of wearing proper dinner dress on occasion (say, for a Christening, birthday, etc.) but despise that of making my guests uncomfortable just because of it. A madras dinner jacket sounds like the happy medium. Luck granted, it’ll come off similarly to them as wearing a “fun shirt,” but I’ll retain the dignity I might’ve lost doing that.

    (BTW, Christian, I love your comparison of madras-wearing to swing dancing.)

  16. A bit of a non-sequitur, but still J. Press: last night I happened to stumble onto Richard Press’ ‘Threading The Needle – Live’ broadcast on Instagram, and it made my night! Richard holding forth about his experiences in the ‘golden era’, some inside-baseball on retailing and Mad Men-era advertising, etc. All mixed in with some fun cocktail-making videos. Thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you Richard!

  17. Richard E. Press | June 16, 2020 at 1:35 pm |

    Thank you Paul. Made my day.

  18. Some of my favorite bow ties are Madras from J.Press. Not available this year…at least not online.

  19. We should all use the Internet to make someone’s day.

    We’ve had a troll lately, so apologies for the unpleasantness.

    Pray for him. There are many lost souls out there.

  20. Charlottesville | June 17, 2020 at 11:22 am |

    IvyBird — Thank you for you comment. It is always a treat to hear from a younger man who appreciates the Ivy style.

  21. Otis Brewster Hogbottom III | June 17, 2020 at 3:54 pm |

    Trimingham’s! Wow, I have not heard that name in a while. Are they still around? I suppose I could search for it myself, but will see if any “real people” can respond first.

  22. Charlottesville, I’m not sure if you saw my comment which was deleted in response to the jerks who pop up from time to time using foul language and racist terms. It is because you have always been a consumate gentleman that I made the comment to shame them. If I offended you, I apologize. I agree with Christian’s statement above.

    Vintage 3/2 BB sack blazer, vintage white BB OCBD, vintage BB black label navy with gold bar tie, olive cuffed Bill’s khakis, well worn Alden for BB Balmorals, sockless. Trafalgar engine turned belt and tank watch on lizard strap.

    Cheers,

    Will

  23. Charlottesville | June 17, 2020 at 4:39 pm |

    Dear Will – -I would never take you for other than a gentleman. When those trolls dropped in, I simply dropped out until Christian could perform the necessary acts of commentary hygiene.

    I am wearing a BB 3/2 sack blazer, OCBD, repp stripe tie and cuffed khakis myself today, but must confess to having socked the feet. Hope you have an enjoyable Wednesday evening.

  24. @Otis Brewster Hogbottom III – Triminghams closed in 2005. I still have a Dog House tie that I bought there in the mid ’60s.

  25. Henry Contestwinner | June 18, 2020 at 2:02 am |

    Come to think of it, I have a vintage bow tie & cummerbund set in Madras plaid. Though I wear black tie several times a year, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to wear this particular set (wouldn’t be appropriate at the balls I attend). Wearing the set when hosting a summer dinner party sounds smashing. Thanks for the inspiration, IvyBird!

  26. Otis Brewster Hogbottom III | June 19, 2020 at 3:40 pm |

    Thanks for that update, Jim K. I had a pair of shorts from there, but I foolishly got rid of them a few decades ago.

  27. Tracy Korman | November 8, 2020 at 10:16 am |

    Hi Richard! I have just found your great columns while searching for vintage madras shirts like the ones I would pilfer from my father’s closet. I think of you and Peter every day as I solve the puzzle. Hope you and yours are all well.

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