From Lungi to luxury: The Checked Past & Present of the Madras Cloth

Pujit Siddhant

Jul 01 2024

<div style=' background:#FFFFFF;color:#000000;font-family:Verdana;width:auto;padding:5px;max-height:100%;'><span><p>Forget the preppy connotations - those breezy, colorful squares we know as Madras checks boast a heritage far richer than summer wardrobes. Their journey began not on the backs of models, but in the steamy South Indian fishing village of Madrasapattinam (now Chennai). Here, centuries ago, communities draped themselves in cool, handwoven muslin lungis - checked patterns perfectly suited to the scorching climate. Dyed with vibrant, vegetable-based colors, these lungis were as functional as they were eco-friendly.</p><p>The arrival of European colonists in the 17th century sent Madras checks on a global adventure. The British East India Company, spotting a unique opportunity, spurred weavers to produce the fabric for export. Madras soon became a bustling trade hub, with the lightweight cloth finding fans in Africa, the Caribbean, and eventually, the United States.</p><p>Ironically, by the mid-20th century, America had transformed Madras checks into an unexpected symbol of affluence. Button-down shirts, trousers, and sports jackets became the "gentleman's go-to look," immortalized in shows like Mad Men. The very feature that made them unique - natural dyes that bled in the wash - was cleverly spun into a selling point.</p><p>However, the late 20th century's rise of power looms and synthetic dyes threatened the future of traditional Madras. The original "bleeding Madras" faded from view, replaced by mass-produced imitations that lacked the soul and quality of handwoven pieces.</p><p>Today, there's a refreshing resurgence of interest in Madras checks' rich heritage. A growing wave of Indian designers are incorporating the fabric into their collections, while initiatives like the IOWEYOU Project champion fair treatment and recognition for the skilled weavers who bring them to life. Madrid-based designer Kavita Parmar sums up the revival's spirit: "Madras checks are a fabric I grew up with... This everyday cloth... has traveled the world and been embraced by many cultures... It's our duty to remind the world where the real Madras comes from."</p><p>The story of Madras checks is a powerful reminder of textiles' enduring magic. From humble beginnings as everyday wear in South India, this fabric has journeyed across continents and cultures, remaining a relevant fashion statement centuries later. As the global fashion industry prioritizes sustainability and ethical practices, Madras checks are poised for a exciting new chapter, ensuring their legacy lives on for generations to come.&nbsp;</p><span></div>

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