They may look preppy, retro or East Coast chic, but whatever you think about their pedigree, madras fabrics are in style. From their place on the fashion runway to that little stretch of beach you use as a weekend getaway, madras is more than a comfortable plaid (checked or striped) fabric. It's a summer season state of mind.
Although best known as a lightweight cotton fabric produced mostly in India, madras is a little like Memorial Day. It announces the summer holiday like no other fabric. You might see a middle aged guy in socks and sandals wearing red and blue plaid madras shorts as he walks a mile circuit around the local park, or catch a pretty girl heading out for a picnic in a pink (or turquoise) madras sundress complete with floppy hat. We've painted two very different pictures here, but that's the beauty of madras: It's universal.
On the next few pages, let's review five ways to update your wardrobe using madras fabrics. Before the season is over, plaid will be your favorite fun fabric pattern.
5: Shorts and Slacks
Madras is typically 100 percent cotton. Unless the product label indicates the fabric has been preshrunk, expect at least some shrinkage during the first few washings -- as much as 2 to 3 percent. To keep shrinkage to a minimum, launder cotton fabrics in cold water and dry them on your dryer's coolest setting or outside on a clothesline.
Yes, it's easy to think that a pair of madras shorts or pants will make you look broad where you'd like to appear lean, but think about it for a minute. Those famous plaids can conceal creases and wrinkles like no solid fabric ever will. The linear geometry can also add height and create the appearance of structure where the fabric would otherwise look a little loose and sloppy. A busy pattern can also make this naturally lightweight fabric appear less sheer without the aid of a heavy (and hot) lining. Let's take a quick inventory: cool, comfortable, modestly concealing and a classic pattern with loads of character. Add a cute top and you've got it made.
4: Jackets, Tunics and Tops
If you refuse to give up your solid slacks (or comfy jeans), chose a madras fabric for a top or lightweight jacket. You'd think all that plaid going on would make your chest (or back) look like a hurricane season weather map, but it doesn't work that way. When you're careful about selecting garments that match the fabric's pattern at the side seams and sleeves, you end up with a clean, tailored look doesn't appear heavy or formal. Many madras plaids incorporate multiple colors like turquoise with yellow and pink, or green with red and blue. That means you can easily mix and match a madras jacket or big shirt with your solid colored, lightweight separates. It's a great way to update last summer's wardrobe.
3: Summer Dresses
There are lots of different madras fabrics on the market, including light pastels that look perky and fresh when made into short dresses and two piece skirt and top combos. Although madras is best-known for distinctive plaids, there are even madras checks, stripes, prints and seersuckers. When you think of a flirty summer dress, you want something that has a nice drape but is still comfortable to wear. Madras offers that as well as instant recognition that says you're ready for a trip to the marina or the country club.
Because madras plaids have been around so long, they've become a kind of seasonal neutral. That and the fact that they're available in so many multicolored patterns makes them great fabrics for cloth handbags. Even better, one of the newest styles in madras fabric combine similar plaids into patchwork patterns. If you think a quilted handbag may be just the thing to tote your shades and sunscreen around in, there's probably a quilted madras bag out there with your name on it. Before you grab one, make sure to check the straps and seams to make sure they have good reinforcement. You should also look for heavier weight canvas cloth that has a madras pattern rather than a lightweight fabric with a thin lining. After all, you want your summer bag to last all season.
Designers like Alessandro Dell'Acqua have used madras and other shirting fabrics in their spring clothing lines, but you may want to start small. No problem. Madras is pretty democratic. You can find it in everything from ties to loungewear. If you're a minimalist, consider adding a blue and green madras belt to that no nonsense navy blue dress. What about a madras tie for your honey's linen blazer. Madras pocket squares are also a nice touch. Whether it's a hair ornament or a plaid sneaker with more personality than arch support, if you can say it with fabric, you can celebrate it with madras. Don't be shy. Get out there and adopt a plaid of your very own.