Madras fabric is a dyed cotton textile that at once, possesses both global and profoundly specific cultural resonances. While it is Indian in origin, named after the city Madras (originally Madraspatnam), it represents what Homi Bhabha termed “third space,” a position of cultural, geographical, and discursive hybridity. Within the context of North America and the United States, madras is a ubiquitous piece of the American sportswear vernacular and a staid preppy staple. For the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria, who call the fabric injiri or “George,” (named after Fort St. George, the port in Madras from where the cloth was once exported) the cloth is nearly sacred. [1] Madras also comprises the official national dress of several island nations of the Caribbean including, St. Lucia, Dominica, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, among others. [2] It even routinely appears in portraits of free and enslaved Black women throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in the form of headdresses and as a symbol of colonial subversion and radical Black femininity. For the locals of Madras (now Chennai), where it is associated with laborers, it has remained less coveted than many other fabrics. [3] However, outside of the region, in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, it has proven to be highly-valuable since as early as the 15th century, though some sources cite the 13th century as well. [4] [5] 

During this early period, the cloth was traded by Portuguese merchants into North Africa, the Middle East, and eventually, alongside the Transatlantic Slave Trade, into West Africa. [6] The Kalabari people’s injiri, often used in dresses and headdresses and associated with religious and spiritual rituals, represents this point of contact. [7] It is possible that enslaved Nigerians brought to the Americas kept this tradition alive even in bondage, where the tradition remained. In the 1630s, the British East India Company, which was backed by a Royal Charter, occupied the village of Madraspatnam and in 1639, officially established Madras as a trading port. [8] From this occupation and the ensuing monopoly on Indian-made textiles, the British cornered the market on a highly-lucrative industry. [9]


The incorporation of plaid into the cotton fabric that we now know as madras, may be traditional to the Indian weavers who produced the cloth and/or a product of British imposition. [10] By the early 19th century, most madras cloth was made in tartan plaid, and it is possible that this aesthetic choice was a result of King George IV’s visit to Scotland — a diplomatic coup, which resulted in a lasting and widespread imperial resurgence of the archaic pattern. [11] However, textile scholar Jasleen Dhamija points to the 16th century records of the Portuguese, which describe checked fabrics from South India that became popular among Haj pilgrims and that originated in Masulipatnam, where they were ritual cloths for cleaning the faces of temple deities. [12]

From the 17th to the 19th century, England, the Netherlands, and France joined the commercial venture of trafficking enslaved Africans as well as the adjacent cotton trade, including madras fabric, as a valuable commodity. [13] Through the British and Dutch East India Companies, as well as the Compagnie des Indes (all of which were founded to monopolize the worldwide trade of Indian goods), madras was shipped to the so-called “New World,” aboard slaving ships to the West Indies. [14] [15] In an effort to eliminate competition between the extremely-popular madras cloth and local textiles, France and England outlawed the wholesale of the textile, only allowing it to be sold in their Caribbean colonies. [16] As an alternative to selling the fabric locally, the English and the French found a market selling the cloth to slave traders. [17] The traders used the cloth as collateral to bargain for enslaved West Africans, at one point making the fabric’s value equal to or greater than the life and freedom of a human person. [18] Indian cotton textiles comprised at least 30 percent of the total export value of Anglo-African trade. [19]

Following the maritime routes of the slave trade, and the ensuing displacement of enslaved Africans throughout the growing diaspora, the cloth developed new resonances with the Black population of both the French and British West Indies. Madras was incorporated into lives of Black West Indians through a melange of both African cultural remittances, such as creolization, where Indian madras fabric was used to fashion dress styles comprised of both West African and European components. Madras soon became a staple for both free and enslaved Black people. This was especially true for Black women, who, at different times, used brightly-colored Madras headdresses to subvert the sumptuary laws of the Caribbean and New Orleans (sometimes colloquially known as the northernmost city of the Caribbean), which mandated plainness as a sign of inferiority and subaltern subjectivity. [20]

In the United States, madras has found an enduring position within the lexicon of American sportswear and, in particular, preppy culture, once known as “Ivy Style.” The fabric has become so synonymous with this subculture, it even appears as a decorative and thematic motif on the cover and throughout The Official Preppy Handbook, a satirical and codifying best-seller of 1980. In chapter 4, “Dressing the Part: The Basic Look,” with typeface over a madras-covered page, the intro to the chapter reads, “MADRAS…If there is one fabric that is quintessentially Preppy, it is madras. True madras, of course. The real thing is one of the oldest fabrics in the cotton trade, a fine hand-loomed cotton that is imported from Madras, India.” [21] It then goes on to a list of detailed instructions for caring for the fabric. The notion of authenticity, evoked here by the qualifiers “quintessentially Preppy,” and “true madras,” are layered in a turducken-like configuration of cultural appropriations and hegemony. 

Among the first recordings of madras in the United States, is a 1718 donation of five bolts of the fabric to the Collegiate School of New Haven, Connecticut. [22] The donor, whose name the school now bears, pledged a very large amount of money and goods to the then-desperate institution, in addition to the valuable fabric. [23] His name was Elihu Yale, and he was the then-governor of Madras. [24] Known even in his own time as corrupt and cruel, Yale was famous for his greed, which amounted to perpetrating financial scams, and with his common practice of illegally abducting and enslaving local children, even flouting the legal limits of the British slave trade so heinously that he had to be sanctioned by the British Government. [25] He famously enforced a rule by which every ship leaving to Europe had to possess at least ten enslaved people. [26] It is ironic then that madras would eventually become a staple of “Ivy League” style centuries later.

Early proof of the widespread sale of madras in the United States includes an 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog, which lists madras shirts for sale, and a 1919 New York Times article that reported a shortage of madras shirts in the country. [27] However, it was not until the mid 1930s that the fad for madras, which peaked in the 1950s and ‘60s, really began to take shape. [28] The close association between madras and Ivy Style in the United States was largely popularized by tourism and Ivy League rugby tournaments in the Caribbean. [29]

Upon their return to the United States, the mostly upper-class white students brought madras with them, an appropriation of local Caribbean sartorial norms, which was indexical to their conspicuous consumption, hegemony, access to leisure and travel, and WASP-y Anglophilia. [30] Madras became associated with Ivy League schools, vacation, the Caribbean, and eventually domestic locales such as Long Island (the Hamptons), Rhode Island (Newport), and South Florida (Palm Beach and Fisher Island). [31] The fabric was fashioned into everything from shirts, trousers, shorts, and blazers, to watchbands, ties, and other accessories.

Although the craze for madras in the United States has depleted significantly since the end of the 1960s, madras clothing is still widely available at preppy sportswear retailers like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and J. Press (founded on Yale University’s campus in 1902). Madras, like many other American sportswear staples, has a complex global history that often includes exploitation, violence, and many layers of cultural appropriation. The adoption of madras into the canon of American sartorial expression has meant that, like many other pieces of American culture, it has been whitewashed. The result is not just discursive erasure, but a tangible reification of the racial wealth gap.

Appropriation and Influence

Diagram of different ways to tie a headwrap.

Headwraps, Martinique

In this illustration, five different styles of madras headwraps can be seen. Madras became a ubiquitous part of the dress and history of Martinique not only because of its material qualities, but as it is shown in this illustration, the fabric was also valued for the communicative purposes that developed over time. It became so embedded in the visual and sartorial culture of the Black Atlantic that one could use the nuance of the fabric, based on the number of ties and peaks, to signify pieces of one’s identity, especially one’s marital status.

Image: The Different Headwraps and their Meanings, Martinique (Link)

Portrait of a woman with a head wrap.

Portrait of Juliette Noel (Mrs. Pierre Toussaint)

Painted by Anthony Meucci (1818-1827), this early 19th century portrait of Juliette Noel, wife of famed New York hairdresser, community leader, and formerly-enslaved person, Pierre Toussaint, provides a visual representation of the madras headwrap, or tignon, as a historical and fashionable component of Black women’s dress in the Americas. The headwrap, which dates back to precolonial Africa, in its incarnation as the tignon, became politicized through 18th century sumptuary laws in Louisiana and the Caribbean. These laws mandated that free and enslaved women of African descent cover their hair as a signifier of racialization and subaltern status. However, the tignon soon became a symbol of fashionability, resistance and subversive Black feminine elegance. Its predominance as a symbol of both freedom and power is evidenced by the many extant portraits of freedwomen, who proudly selected colorful madras tignons as their accessory of choice. Like the elegant Juliette Noel, who purchased her freedom at just age fifteen, free women of color used the tignon as visual iconography in life, and on canvas, to celebrate Black femininity and womanhood as well as freedom from bondage.

Image: Anthony Meucci (fl in America, 1818-1827) Juliette Noel (Mrs. Pierre Toussaint) (Link)

Book cover of The Preppy Handbook

The Official Preppy Handbook

In the Official Preppy Handbook, madras is employed not only as a persistent visual motif, on the cover and throughout the book, but it is also described as “[the] one fabric that is quintessentially Preppy.” Since the early 20th century, madras fabric has been appropriated into the American fashion and sportswear vocabulary. It has had particular resonances within so-called “WASP” culture and the subculture that was once known as “Ivy Style.” At its peak, in the early-to-mid 20th century, preppy madras was associated with the Spring break patterns of wealthy white East Coast college students, who took the cloth back to the United States as resort wear souvenirs from the Caribbean. It has since become a ubiquitous component of warm-weather fashion in the United States, though it is not originally from the US.

Image: The Official Preppy Handbook (Link)

Images of a vintage Madras print Tommy Hilfiger shirt

Vintage Tommy Hilfiger Patriotic Madras Shirt

This vintage Tommy Hilfiger madras patchwork shirt, described by the owner and collector as “[the] HOLY GRAIL OF ALL HILFIGER MADRAS PATCHWORK SHIRTS…STARS AND STRIPES…PATRIOTIC,” represents perhaps the ultimate synthesis of madras fabric and Americana. Despite its foreign origins, madras has been appropriated by North American designers and retailers as quintessentially American.

Image: Vintage Tommy Hilfiger Patriotic Madras Shirt (Link)


Birnbach, Lisa. The Official Preppy Handbook. (New York: Workman Publishing, 1980).

Kobayashi, Kazuo. “Indian cotton textiles in the eighteenth-century Atlantic economy.” London School of Economics Blogs. June 27, 2013.

“MADRAS.” Costume Institute of the African Diaspora.

Mei, Siobhan. “Madras and the Poetics of Sartorial Resistance in Caribbean Literature.” Age of Revolutions. May 20, 2019.

Muzquiz, Albert. “Bleeding Madras – Under the Skin of a Colonial Fabric.” Heddels. May 7, 2018.

Rauser, Amelia. “Madras and Muslin Meet Europe: On neoclassical cultural appropriation.” Lapham Quarterly. March18, 2020.

Radhakrishna, Sabita. “The colourful fabric called Madras.” Rotary News. October 2017.

Sharp, Christopher. “Dye Another Day: The Spread Of Madras Madness In The 20th Century.” Ivy Style. July 8, 2017.

Zamor, Hélène. “Emergence of the Martiniquan Gwan Wòb.” Journal of Studies in History & Culture. Fall Winter 2014.

Zamor, Hélène. “Indian Heritage in the French Creole-Speaking Caribbean: A Reference to the Madras Material.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. March 2014.


[1] Albert Muzquiz, “Bleeding Madras – Under the Skin of a Colonial Fabric,” Heddels, May 7, 2018.

[2] Hélène Zamor, “Indian Heritage in the French Creole-Speaking Caribbean: A Reference to the Madras Material,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, March 2014.

[3] Muzquiz, “Bleeding Madras”

[4] Ibid.

[5] “MADRAS,” Costume Institute of the African Diaspora

[6] Sabita Radhakrishna, “The colourful fabric called Madras,” Rotary News, October 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Muzquiz, “Bleeding Madras”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Radhakrishna, “The colourful fabric called Madras”

[13] Hélène Zamor, “Emergence of the Martiniquan Gwan Wòb,” Journal of Studies in History & Culture, Fall Winter 2014.

[14] Siobhan Mei, “Madras and the Poetics of Sartorial Resistance in Caribbean Literature,” Age of Revolutions, May 20, 2019.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Amelia Rauser, “Madras and Muslin Meet Europe: On neoclassical cultural appropriation,” Lapham Quarterly, March18, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 

[19] Kazuo Kobayashi, “Indian cotton textiles in the eighteenth-century Atlantic economy,” London School of Economics Blogs, June 27, 2013.

[20] Mei, “Madras and the Poetics of Sartorial Resistance in Caribbean Literature”

[21] Lisa Birnbach, The Official Preppy Handbook, (New York: Workman Publishing, 1980), 120.

[22] Muzquiz, “Bleeding Madras”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. 

[26] Ibid. 

[27] Christopher Sharp, “Dye Another Day: The Spread Of Madras Madness In The 20th Century,” Ivy Style, July 8, 2017.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31]  Ibid.

Learn More

Article: “Madras: More Than a Fabric, a Cultural Heritage,” Bwa Brilé

Article: “The Role of the Middleman in the Trades of Real Madras Handkerchief (Madras Plaids),” Sandra Lee Evenson 

Article: “How Madras lost its textile legacy in checks,” The Federal

Twitter: A Twitter History of Madras, Ụ́kpụ́rụ́ (@ukpuru) 

Article: “Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora,” Costume Institute of the African Diaspora 

Article: “Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora,” V&A Museum Blog by Susana Fajardo. 2014.

Article: “How the colonial Madras fabric played a role in transalantic slave trade,” Face2Face Africa 

Article: “Madras Fabric,” Madras Musings