Madras checks back in

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Times Staff Writer

Madras PLAID, the preppy staple, will always conjure images of clambakes on the Cape and touch football on Martha’s Vineyard. But this spring, the breezy fabric is having a fashion moment, turning up on everything from retro nerd, short sleeve men’s shirts to string bikinis.

The dyed cotton originated in Madras, India (now called Chennai), in the 1800s, where it was inspired by the Scottish tartans of the regiments occupying the land.

Loosely woven cotton was transformed with vegetable dyes into plaids, checks and stripes that were instantly popular in the warm climate. When the British left India, they took madras with them, and it was soon embraced by the country club set on both sides of the Atlantic.


More recently, madras has been reinvented by avant-garde designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Rei Kawakubo. They used the fabric in their runway collections as commentary on the notion of empire.

Now, madras is all over the place, in chain stores as well as designer boutiques. Jean Touitou, designer of cult French label APC, was so inspired by a trip to India that he and another designer, Jessica Ogden, started a collection under the APC label named Madras. It includes madras plaid pieces as well as other lightweight summer essentials, all manufactured in India.

If you’re not up for head-to-toe plaid, there are plenty of madras accessories too.

Italian shoe line Superga has casual sneakers in frayed pink and yellow madras. Or for a more dressed-up look, Mossimo for Target offers a sleek madras ballet flat.

For men, Jack Spade offers a spiffy yellow madras necktie, J. Crew has a madras plaid driving cap, and Sperry’s classic Top-Sider is available in several madras color combinations.

Mall anchor American Eagle Outfitters has embraced the rainbow bright fabric too, splashing it on espadrilles, slouchy hobo bags and colorful bikinis. Old Navy has a button-down tank dress in an earthier, more worn-in madras. Wrinkles give the piece more character, so it packs easily and travels well.

That’s the great thing about madras. It only gets better with age, faded by sun and sea -- or just the washing machine.