As you can probably guess from my Tumblr’s name, I’m not terribly fond of plaid. I don’t mean glen plaid, but rather the kind of pedestrian plaid that you see everywhere on shirts these days. I just find them too closely associated with truck drivers, hipsters, and Marshalls in the early 1990s. There’s a great alternative to plaid, however: madras.
Madras is named after the Indian city where it originated. In the 1800s, when Scottish regiments occupied India, Indians reinterpreted the Scottish tartans they saw through their own local color palettes. The shirts were very, very colorful, but also muted and soft. Most importantly, they were vegetable dyed. This production process gave madras its most charming characteristic. When washed, madras faded and often bled, giving them a unique lived-in look.
Traditionally, these shirts are made with loosely woven fine cottons that have an airy, almost linen-like quality. Remember that these were originally meant for climates that routinely went above 100F. As such, their colorful, faded, “bled-in” colors, coupled with their lightweight, breathable quality, make them the perfect summer shirt.
Unfortunately, madras shirts today aren’t the same as those of yesteryear. Sometime in the 1970s or so, manufacturers “perfected” the dying process so that the shirts became colorfast, which means they don’t fade or bleed. Some modern madras shirts, however, come with some minimal pre-set “bleeding” which at least tries to mimic the old original charm. You’ll typically notice this most at the seams.
Spring-Summer collections are still being released, but some early options for madras have come out.
For $50 dollars, you can try J Press or Rogues Gallery. The Rogues Gallery option will have a slimmer fit, of course, and it comes in short and long sleeve options.
If you can afford it, I think some of the best options right now are through Ralph Lauren and Gitman Vintage. Both are selling right now for about $100, and both stay a bit more true to the original madras fabric and patterns. The red, yellow, and blue madras by Ralph Lauren is available through their regular stores, while the green one is available through Bloomingdales. The Gitman I’ve featured above is available through the online Gitman Vintage store. Barney’s is also carrying another really nice Gitman Vintage madras, but it’s priced more steeply at $175.
Dann-Online also offers very true-to-form Viyella madras shirts for around $70. The price is right, but there are only a few size options left and I’m not even sure how they fit. I assume they’re not slim, but I bet if you size down and get the shoulders and chest to fit well, a tailor can take care of the rest. You can tell from the fabric swatches that this stuff is the real deal.
If none of these work for you, you might try buying some madras fabric from Atlantis Fabrics and having one custom made through Cottonwork or your local bespoke shirtmaker. There aren’t as many color options at Dann-Online, but at least you can get a bespoke shirt made from it.
As for how to wear these, since madras shirts tend to be so colorful, one should be careful to wear only basic and simple pieces with it. Wear them on bright days with plain khaki, navy, or grey pants. If you’re a bit too bashful to wear so much color, layer a madras shirt underneath a plain and subdued v-neck sweater or cardigan, leaving the madras to have a slight pop of color under your otherwise restrained palette. Whatever you do, avoid patchwork madras, as it’s garish.
To read more about madras, check out Lands’ End’s excellent and extensive article here.
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