Thursday, July 16, 2009
Madras Men: How Plaids Have Taken Over the Suburbs
It seems a mere instant ago when every self-respecting Dad in the American suburbs wore combat shorts -- as if, to paraphrase the marvelous Hadley Freeman, they were expecting to wage war with the barbecue tongs and garden hose.
Just back from this mosquito-ridden theatre, I can report that combat shorts are over and out. America's menfolk have found a new (old) bottomwear option: madras plaid shorts. But they're definitively not your father's madras plaid shorts, which had their last spell of popularity in the preppy-mad early 80s. Nor are they your grandfather's madras-plaid shorts, which ruled the decks in the late 50s and 60s, when American WASPS wore them because Brooks Brothers sold them, which made it ok.
The big difference? Today's madras is easy-care. Pop it in the washing machine if the ketchup spills over, no problem.
The early issue madras was another story altogether. I'll quote from the bible on the subject, The Official Preppy Handbook (1980):
If there is one fabric that is quintessentially Preppy, it is madras. True Madras. of course. the real thing is one of the oldest fabrics in the cotton trade, a fine, hand-loomed cotton that is imported from Madras, India. What sets true madras apart from imitations is that it "bleeds"; the murky colors, navy blue, maroon, mustard yellow--of its distinctive plaids are imparted with vegetable dyes that are guaranteed to run.
Since the colors are so unstable, madras has to be treated very carefully. Shirts, shorts, and items that are not going to be dry- cleaned must be soaked in cold salt water for at least twenty-four hours before they are washed the first time. This sets the dyes. Then they really should be washed separately for months thereafter, because the colors will still run. Old madras takes on a lovely soft look and feel with many washings (the crux of the fabric's appeal to Preps), though jackets, of course, must be dry-cleaned to maintain that sharp plaid.
If you want more background, check out this fascinating exploration of the history and national significance of madras.
If you want an actual, authentic, vintage madras shirt (for ladies!), check out online vintage purveyors for the raggedy real thing. But if you buy it, don't forget the salt soak before you wash. If you don't, it will run harder than Usain Bolt, and don't say I didn't warn you.