Madras Short Pants and Jackets

Figure 1.--Madras jackets worn with solid color short pants and kneesocks were worn by American boys in the 1950s-60s. Madras shorts were also worn, but of course not with Madras jackets.

Madras Cloth

Madras is a fine cotton fabric with patterened texture, used primarily for dresses, skirts, and sports jackets. Also used for trousers in the United States-- primarily short pants for children and teenagers. Its design may be in the form of yarn-dried stripes or an allover pattern woven in white or colored yarn. End-to-enf Madras, used for men and boys' shirts , is similar to chambray, the difference being that in the Madras dyed and white yarns alternate in both warp and filling. Curtain Madras is an open-textured fabric woven in a gauze weave. It is usually a marquisette made of fine yarns.

Textiles and India

Hand loomed textiles

Many people do not understand how very much hand-loomed fabric India produces. But the fact is, it is really so extensive and important an area of production to the national economy that the Indian government considers this craft a priority.

It is of course something that we may not realize, perhaps not even think much about-living in a high-tech society as we do, in which cybernetics, robotics, and micro-chips garner the lion's share of attention-that there are societies in which thousands, and in this case millions, are employed in craft work. We do, upon reflection, have at least vague inklings that there are probably a thousand or so weavers of tweed in the Scottish islands, and perhaps as many as several hundred cottage weavers shuttling away in New England. But the Indian hand-woven fabric industry tends to make the old imagination boggle a bit.

The figures for cloth production have been fairly stable over the past several years. India produces about 6 billion yards of fabric annually, slightly more than half of which is hand-loomed. I would estimate that there are perhaps 5 million individual hand-powered looms in India today for the weaving of cotton alone. It is without question the world's largest cottage industry, as well as the very backbone of the Indian economy. It also explains why a spinning wheel is emblematically at the center of the Indian flag.

The bulk of this hand-loom production is the cotton fabric we know as "Madras." Traditional Indian madras is 100 percent hand-woven, fine yarn-dyed cotton in either solid colors, random stripes, or plaids of various patterns. The term Madras, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, may not be used in labeling or advertising unless it is Indian cloth of this description. Originally the cotton yarn was colored with natural vegetable dyes that were not stable (chemically stable dyes that stay set in the yarn are said to be "fast"), and when the fabric was washed the colors would "bleed" into each other and thus produce new effects after each laundering. The appearance of a madras shirt new was not an exactly reliable indication of what it would look like after two or three launderings. Far from being a liability, however, this effect was highly prized and considered a unique and novel clothing experience, and in fact the beauty of "bleeding madras" was seen to lie in the weathered appearance that accrued from this blending property of the cloth. In the halcyon 1950s, no summer attire branded one more an arriviste than a bright madras shirt and spotless white buckskin shoes. They both wanted a bit of breaking in, of seasoning-and so did the man who wore them.

Modern Madras cloth

Today most Madras cloth is fast-dyed, colors no longer run and blend after washing, and bleeding madras is virtually as much a thing of the past as crinolines and perukes. The other properties of great beauty and comfort, though, remain intact. It is one of the best warm-weather clothing fabrics ever devised. This particular cotton fabric is called madras because it is traditionally produced in the southeast part of India, the economic center of which is the port city of Madras (accent on the second syllable). This part of the subcontinent is ideal for growing cotton: there is an average temperature range of 75 to 100 F. and an average rainfall of about fifty inches or so. The city itself is the fourth largest in India (after Calcutta, Bombay, and New Delhi), with a population of some three and a half million spread over an area of fifty square miles extending back from the Bay of Bengal towards the Deccan Plateau. Ironically, none of the cloth we call Madras is actually woven in the city of that name, nor, to extend the semantic irony a bit further, is it even called "Madras" there. The cloth is referred to simply as "60-40" cloth, meaning that the lengthwise warp of the fabric comprises 60 threads and the crosswise weft 40-which has been found to be a perfect combination to produce the desired lightness of weight and still maintain optimum strength of the woven cotton. The weaving itself is done mainly by farmers living in the outlying villages surrounding Madras. Practically every village home has a hand loom for cotton weaving, to provide a supplemental income for farming families during the long crop-growing season when there is little work to be done in the fields. Then every family member will take his or her turn at the loom, and practically everyone from head of household to youngest child is adept at spinning and weaving.


The particular type of loom used in this intricate and meticulous labor is known as a "pit loom," because it is actually set in a five by five by two-foot pit in the ground, unlike other hand looms that are raised on a frame to the height of the weaver's waist. The design for the pit loom developed because of the scarcity of wood in the area. Instead of building a high and elaborate frame to elevate the loom so that it reaches the weaver, the weaver in essence lowers himself to the loom: he sits on the edge of the pit, with his legs and feet resting on the bottom, no need even for a chair; it is ingenious and simple, as many ancient crafts are.

History of cotton

The history of cotton production in India is an ancient one indeed, and it could be argued that the making of cotton fabric for clothing is one of India's great gifts to civilization. A dyed fragment of cotton cloth found at Mohenjo-daro-the southern capital of the Indus culture of antiquity-confirms the suspicion that cotton cloth had been spun, woven, and dyed in India for at least 4,000 years. And the production of hand loomed cotton has been inexorably interwoven into the history of India ever since. It is economic life-blood, political symbol, and craft of great skill.

British colonialism

Even the introduction of European-managed cotton factories in British India after 1850 had relatively little effect on the destiny of hand-woven cotton. What did almost destroy the extensive cotton cottage industry was the mercantile nature of the British import-export laws. During the second half of the 19th century Britain came to visualize her Indian domain as both a vast source of raw cotton fiber for the burgeoning Lancashire weaving and finishing mills and as a huge consumer outlet for the finished goods of those mills. It was a theory in political economy that had prevailed in England since the reign of Henry VIII and centered on establishing colonies to guarantee a favoable balance of trade-for the mother country of course. So from shortly after mid-19th century until the end of World War I , the British government instituted a number of customs acts to make it difficult for India both to keep out British cotton goods and to protect her native cloth production as well. The result, put simply, was that British imports, munificent though they might have been for British manufacturing, all but destroyed the rich variety and tradition of the Indian handicraft and cottage industries.

The British government was little inclined to create new industries for the unemployed peasant who had lost their livelihoods because of these laws, making matters worse. It was inevitable that from this situation ill feelings toward the British grew-fueling the independence movement. Specifically, the stage was set for thr rise of Mahatma Gandhi and an independent India. It was no accident that one of Ghandi's action was to boycott British products and to encourage the purchase of home spun fabric.

In both 1904 and 1908 there were successful boycotts of British cotton goods. Indians were urged by their leaders to wear "svadeshi" cloth (the term for homemade goods), and homespun became a potent symbol of national pride and political unity. The svadeshi movement led directly to the revitalization of the dying cottage industries of hand-spinning and weaving and ultimately to economic and political independence. Although there seems to be little unanimity among his followers and critics as to what his real economic policies might have been had he lived longer, Gandhi apparently felt that India was not ready for rapid industrialization, and that it was better to improve life in the agricultural villages than to move large numbers of the rural population to the few industrial centers. His brilliant solution was to use handicrafts both as a means of employment and as an instrument of revolution. He particularly entreated his supporters to symbolize their resistance to the Raj by devoting daily time to spinning and weaving-as he himself did!


With independence in 1947, the Indian leaders, having achieved their main political objective, were faced with the harsh economic realities of going it alone. The Election Manifesto of the ruling Congress Party therefore concentrated on a planned approach to economic development, stating two primary goals: increased agricultural productivity and encouragement of cottage industries (handicrafts such as art metalwork, ivory carving, ceramics, brass and wood carving, leather footwear and clothing, and most important, hand-loomed cloth). Cotton textiles quickly became the rallying point and leading industry, with over five billion yards produced annually after 19?6. More than half of that yardage is handwoven, and most is madras.

Production process

One of the most fascinating aspects of hand-loomed fabric is that production methods throughout the world are basically the same, whether it be Scottish tweed or Indian madras. The dyed yarn and basic pattern of the cloth to be woven are provided and distributed by the local cloth mill to the individual weavers, who are as often as not farmers. These farmers then weave the cloth in their homes on looms that they own and then return the woven fabric to the mill for finishing and distribution to clothing manufacturers. The mill pays the weaver for his labor according to the yardage turned in. It is a simple and universal system that allows for individuality and flexibility, particularly at the point where creativity is most important-the actual weaving of the cloth. It is a system that integrates craft and industry and gets the best of both.

The cloth

The cloth itself is soft and light, but stronger than gauze or other loosely woven cottons, so it is perfectly suited for warm weather. Not only is it the least expensive hand-woven cloth (wholesaling here for between two and three dollars a yard), but like any handmade article, each piece has its own individual appearance. Handweaving is an art, not an exact science, and the patterning is still somewhat at the discretion of the artisan who works the loom, and he or she will necessarily impart his or her own feelings into the work and the fabric, which is part of the beauty of the finished garment in which the fabric is used.


When it comes to the actual weaving, often the pattern of the cloth is more or less exclusively established by a particular village. Either the weavers themselves in a village will have a particular pattern they are accustomed to weaving by tradition, or the yarn distributor will ask one village to weave a certain pattern or two and ask another village to weave a different pattern. There develops something of a proprietary feeling about these patterns by the villagers, and they become quite skillful and creative about their unique work. This specialization also insures a great variety of patterns and colors for the cloth, which is reminiscent of the traditional knitting techniques, for example, that developed among the families of the Aran Isles, off the southwest coast of Ireland, where every family has its own pattern for knitting those hefty scoured-wool sweaters worn by the fishermen who ply the cold waters out from Galway Bay.

Uses of Madras

The finished cloth is used for almost every lightweight article of clothing that men and women wear in warm weather, from skirts and trousers to jackets, handkerchiefs, belts, neckties, walk shorts, watch- bands, and even athletic supporters. Madras bow ties and cummerbunds, not seen since the mid-1950s, are being resurrected at the moment, and can summer dinner jackets of madras be far behind? Brooks Brothers introduced madras clothing to this country at the end of the last century, but it wasn't until the 1930s that it really became popular. Vacationers to the Caribbean had first spotted the fabric being worn by West Indian natives, and before long shorts and swim trunks, sports jackets and golf trousers were all the rage round the links and club pool. Soon Madras Bermuda shorts were all the rage on American campuses and soon shorter Madas shorts appeared for boys.

The denim mania of the 1960s and 70s dampened enthusiasm for madras in some quarters, but it remains, along with polo shirts and penny loafers, very much a part of the Eastern Establishment summer uniform.

The Ivy League shops, whether actually on campus or not, have always been the place to find madras clothes: J. Press, Chipp, Paul Stuart, and Brooks in New York; the Andover Shop in Cambridge; Britches in Georgetown; Langrock in Princeton; Julian's in Chapel Hill; Eddie Jacobs in Baltimore: those sorts of places. And as those stores attest, the campus summer uniform has not changed much in the past 30 years. Plaid madras sports jackets worn with oxford button-downs and khaki trousers are still de rigueur for parties and dances, and madras trousers or walk shorts worn with polo shirts and penny loafers or topsiders without socks are still standard day wear.

The only real difference of course is the price. In the late 1940s you could buy a pair of madras walk shorts for $5, while today you can expect to pay closer to $50, but then that's true of everything, isn't it?

Proper Look

Finally there is the matter of the proper look of madras. The cloth, whether it's the old "bleeding" variety or the newer color-fast stuff, should not be bright and clear. Rather, just as good tweed, it should have a soft, muted, weathered look. And just as with good tweed, it takes some breaking in to achieve this effect. There are a number of quick ways, it's often said, to do this: taking showers wearing your clothes, or filling the pockets with small stones and hanging the garment in the rain for a week or two, that sort of thing. I also know that we are living in a world of fast food and speed reading, and that instantaneous gratification has become a way of life, but some things-perhaps the best things-can't be rushed, and I think cloth is one of them. The only advice I can give on how to achieve a worn effect is to wear the garment; wear it around the house when you are alone if you must, and launder it frequently. Eventually it will break in and settle down, and you can take it out in company.

Trousers and Pants


I do not believe that boys commonly wore long Madras trousers, although they were available.


I do not believe that Madras was used for knickers.

Short pants

Madras was used for boys' short pants. As Madras was a commonly worn summer fabric, it was a logical material for summer shorts. This was especially true in the South. By the 1950s there was not a campus in the country that didn't sport a full complement of plaid Bermuda shorts on male and female students alike-worn either with tennis shoes or with kneesocks and dress shoes, English style. Younger boys wore Madras shorts cut shorter than Bermudas for casual dressup occasions, sometimes with blue blazers. Madras short pants were mostly worn as casual dressy shorts and not for play. Theu might be paired with a blue blazer or just worn with a white or light colored short-sleeved shirt, with or without a tie. Older boys began wearing shorts, usually Bermudas in the 1960s. These shorts were made of many materials, but chinos, Madras, and searsucker were some of the most popular. Synthetic fibers and denim have dominated bots clothing in more recent years and Madras has not been a material commonly used for boys' shorts.

Boys wearing a Madras sports jacket would not wear marching Madras short oants. Instead they would wear contrasting solid color shorts. Navy shorts were the most common, but khaki chinos were alsomworn. A madras jacket could be worn with solid colored shorts or slacks.


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Created: November 20, 1998
Last updated: December 1, 1999