Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Hipsters of Tamil Nadu: Plaid and the Madras Shirt

Perhaps it is my fascination for autoethnography and a quest for the meaning of life that makes me seek the connections between what I read and my own life.  It is my own way of finding my own personal connections to this universe and developing my own interpretation of the old mahavakya तत्त्वमसि (You are that.)

Today's piece in this fascinating quest: the plaid shirt.

Back in my first year of graduate school, I bought myself a plaid shirt, with the typical red and black color combination.  When I wore it to class on a Southern California winter day, a classmate--a White American woman--greeted me with "hey lumberjack!"

I had no idea what she was referring to.  Why am I a lumberjack because of the warm and colorful shirt that I was wearing?  Keep in mind that this was well before my immersion into all things Americana and, of course, before I figured out the importance of small talk in this culture.

Over the years I have also come to understand that as one from Madras (Chennai) and Tamil Nadu, maybe I had had the preference for the plaid shirt even back in India thanks to the Madras shirts--though I knew about the expression "Madras shirt" only after living in the US.  I know, I know, this autoethnographic piece is getting to be a ball of woolen yarn; so, will slowly thread the story for you ;)

In 1978, archeologists inspecting an ancient cemetery in China found the 3,000-year old remains of a "6-foot-2, tall, brown hair, and long-nosed" body referred to as the "Cherchen Man."  And, even more interestingly:
When the archeologists discovered this 3,000-year-old body, it was dressed in a “twill tunic and tartan leggings.” Various colors of wool were interwoven. They are the oldest preserved pants in the world and the first example of what we know as plaid. (Which isn't to say this is the first plaid ever made: There are references to the design that pre-date the Cherchen Man; his just happen to be preserved.)
While it's still not entirely clear how persons of Celtic descent ended up in China, the discovery is proof that the Scottish people have been using plaid/tartan as a design for more than 3,000 years.
Imagine that!

Fast forward from the time of the Cherchen Man to the British mercantilism morphing into imperialism.  The Subcontinent, especially in the cotton-growing areas, is way too hot for wool.
The modern day Madras fabric has a plaid or checked and sometimes even striped pattern in generally bright colors. These patterns, especially plaid, first made their appearance about a hundred and fifty years ago and were the result of the tartan craze which started with the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. As was to be expected, this influenced the British in India and tartan started to be incorporated into Madras. The Harris Museum in Preston, Lancashire has two swatches of Madras fabric dating from 1866; one is a tartan and the other very similar to modern day Madras
I recall wearing plenty of checked-patterned shirts when growing up in India, but had no idea then about this rich story of Scottish tartans and the British Raj.

Of course, it was not I who brought the Madras Shirt to the US ;)
It first made its appearance in America in 1718 as a part of a donation made to the Collegiate School of Connecticut by the then Governor of Madras Elihu Yale.
Ahem, by now you know well about my thoughts on Yale--the person--right?
the big breakthrough came allegedly in 1958, when the leading textile importer William Jacobson embarked on a trip from the U.S. to Bombay in the hopes to return with this exotic fabric from India.
What happened?
Upon his arrival, the local textile Commissioner Mr. Swaminathan directed him to Captain C.P.Krishnan Nair the proprietor of Leela Scottish Lace Ltd, a textile exporting company from Chennai ( modern day Madras) who presented Jacobson with a fabric that he fell for right away. It was a Madras plaid fabric with a strong smell of vegetable dyes and sesame oils that was dyed in vivid colors that was originally made for export to South Africa. Mr. Nair was delighted to supply Mr. Jacobson with the Madras fabric at $1 per yard, warning him that the fabric required utmost care when laundering because the color would run out if it wasn’t gently washed in cold water.
The American exporter sold ( 10,000 yards ) of the same fabric to Brooks Brothers who manufactured trousers and jackets (which sold for $50) . 
Wait, this gets more interesting:
However Jacobson failed to fully explain the properties of the fabric and did not issue washing instructions to Brooks Brothers.
Customers were furious when they saw the colors run that ruined their expensive summer apparel. Jacobson was likewise furious and summoned Mr. Nair to the United States where his attorneys threatened to sue Mr. Nair and the Leela Scottish Lace Ltd.
Which is where the marketing genius kicked in:
One of the attorneys arranged an interview for Mr. Nair with the editor of Seventeen Magazine in which he created a story about this miracle Madras fabric from India that was exclusively made for Brooks Brothers in New York. In the following issue, the editor ran a seven-page article about fabric titled “Bleeding Madras — the miracle handwoven fabric from India”. And since pictures say more than 1,000 words, they added beautiful photographs with the caption “guaranteed to bleed”.
Within a days of the magazine hitting the newsstands, Brooks Brothers was flooded with thousands of requests for the Madras items and it became an overnight success. Both, Mr. Jacobson and Mr. Nair made a fortune from the sale and paved the way for future Indian fabric exports of millions of yards of Madras cloth.
In the 1960’s, David Ogivily, one of the leading “Mad Men” of the era, would further a very similar campaign for Hathaway Madras shirts, and all of a sudden customers couldn’t wait to see their Madras shirts fade fast enough.
To borrow the words from another American, "there's a sucker born every minute."

And to bring this to a close, from right here in Oregon, well, there is a town close by that is named Madras.  Why?
According to one version of the story, someone noticed a bolt of Madras pattern cloth and suggested that the town be called “Madras.” Others contend that the name was chosen because of the early settlers’ spiritual affinity with the city in India.
Namaste! ;)


Ramesh said...

Well, these days, even business shirts in the old country would put a plaid to shame . Psychedelic colours, colourful patterns which would make the photo in your post blush with shame ...... Ugh ! Oh for the days of Big Blue :):)

Even though I was introduced to Elihu Yale from your previous post, I am still amazed by his story. Why on earth and American became a Governor of Madras for the East India Company, still beats me. Perhaps he was the first of the roving multinational executive !

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Yale himself was acutely aware of his multinational life, which is why he had arranged for his tombstone to read:
"Born in America, in Europe bred / In Afric travell'd and in Asia wed / Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; at London dead."
Come to think of it, Hollywood and the Tamil movie industry can make an epic movie about Yale and they wouldn't need to fictionalize anything at all for the drama ... in the Tamil version, you can even have Yale run around the trees and sing a few numbers--I won't be surprised if he had done that in real life too ;)

gils said...

Khe sir..and thala..try "Tamarind city" a book on madras.. You will be pleasantly surprised. Since u already know about the Yule connect let me kindle your curiosity with a snippet.. Did u know Robert Clive almost hanged himself due to depression when he was stationed in madras.. This was before the Bengal partition BTW.. Read that book you will love it..

Sriram Khé said...

Had Clive hanged himself, well, it is an understatement to say that the history of the Raj would have been different! If only the damned colonialists had stayed within the confines of their home turf!

gils said...

Middle East would've extended further south east

gils said...

Middle East would've extended further south east

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