Check yourself — why I love madras cloth


American prep style has been an inexhaustible reservoir of ideas for designers at least since Ralph Lauren worked as a sales assistant at Brooks Brothers, 60 years ago. People love reinventing this stuff.

I am an actual preppy, however (boarding school in Boston, New England, childhood summer holidays on Martha’s Vineyard, the works), and this stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. Blue blazers, deck shoes, duck boots, seersucker, frayed khakis, popped collars, belts embroidered with little lobsters, field coats, sailors’ bracelets, flannel shirts in Scotch plaid: all a hard pass from me.

(This is probably because, as a preppy, I’m a failure: no job at a Wall Street bank or law firm, no summer home, can’t sail or play tennis. My children will not be going to boarding school. My ancestors are, I can only assume, too ashamed to show their faces at the celestial yacht club.)

In one area, however, I stick close to my roots: an unreconstructed love of madras cloth. Madras (pronounced, in the US, with the emphasis on the first syllable) is a lightweight carded cotton cloth with a bright plaid pattern, first produced in and named for the Indian city now known as Chennai. With its goofy, candied, clashing colours, madras cloth personifies the way upper-class Wasp good taste is almost very bad taste. It is a repressed group’s way of cutting loose.

Here’s the thing, though: whatever the associations, the stuff just looks good. I remember some years ago dressing for a wedding party in a snappy blue, pink and white madras jacket. My wife urged me to switch my leather brogues for a pair of sneakers: she was concerned that, paired with real shoes, people would fail to see the jacket was a joke. But it wasn’t a joke — I really liked wearing those colours!

For style-conscious men now live in an era of natural tones, soft organic fabrics and “stealth luxury”. Men are covered in blue, grey and brown. All this subtle good taste gets a little boring. Madras is a way to break out — and it is a terrific summer fabric. It is lightweight and, because it doesn’t even go with itself most of the time, it goes with most other things (or, at least, most other solid colours). Herewith, then, a few madras items a well-dressed man should have.

A madras tie. Not a bow tie (you are not, lucky for you, Tucker Carlson). This is the only madras item you can wear to work. With a blue suit and a white shirt, this is the best summer tie there is. Makes you feel 10 degrees cooler. You can purchase a nice one from the post-bankruptcy remains of Brooks Brothers.

Shirt. Short sleeves only. Goes great over jeans. The best source, oddly, is in the UK: John Simons, on Chiltern Street in London. They ship.

J Press Patch Madras Sports Coat - Classic Fit, £614.38,
J Press Patch Madras sports coat, £614,

Bode Beaded Floral Madras shorts, $430,

Shorts. Uncontroversially nice-looking, but resist the urge to pair with loafers, which, again, is going too far in the direction of a Nantucket garden party. White sneakers or some sort of sandal instead. For the brand conscious, Bode makes a pair.

Jackets are a little tricky, as a modern man has few occasions to wear a jacket in a casual setting. Or at least that is true of this modern man. But maybe once a summer I’m invited to some kind of outdoor drinks event. And a madras jacket, however good looking, is so hopelessly uncool that it will never go out of style, so you can wear it very occasionally for ever. Someone’s wearing, them, anyway: J Press sells no fewer than seven different models.

Trousers. Here we enter trickier territory. I don’t own a pair. Trying them on, I’ve never been able to overcome the suspicion that I look like the self-important golf club mucky-muck Judge Smails in the 1980 comedy movie Caddyshack (Did Smails actually wear madras in the film? I’m not sure. But spiritually he did). There may be a way, though. I can imagine a glaring pair worn with a T-shirt and heavy black boots looking pleasingly punk rock. You could even, in this context, go for madras’s most fiercely preppy manifestation: patchwork madras — the cloth for those few who find standard madras insufficiently campy. I don’t love it, but if you are going for it, you might as well go all the way.

Style has always been a matter of reinventing what went before. Madras is ripe for it, and we should take what we can from the preppies.

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