The English spent a lot of time in India; more than 300 years. During this time, they changed the landscape of the country, for better or for worse. But they weren’t the only ones who came to the country.
The Scottish, the Irish, the Dutch, the French, and the Portuguese, the Danish, the Armenians, the Persians, the Arabs, among others, came to trade with the country. In the process, they established ‘factories.’
Slowly, over time, to protect their trade interests, traders established their own armies, and set up ‘colonies’ in the sub-continent. And through the centuries, they fought amongst themselves and tried to establish their dominion over the country. Once they gained control, they took away vast amounts of wealth from the country.
The history of the subcontinent is inextricably linked to colonialism. From food and fashion to armies and enterprises–much of what we witness in the subcontinent is woven through the colonial past. Today, ‘post colonial’ societies, as they are called, seem to be the children of globalisation, a strange mix of cosmopolitanism and conservatism.
One can witness the manifestations in several ways; Indians eating potatoes, introduced into India by colonialism; Indians obsessing over cricket; Indian men wearing suits, shirts and trousers are all examples of colonial past.
The Scots, too, have left something of their own: The Scottish Madras is a great example.
But what is Scottish Madras? It is a delicate fabric, a Muslin, that has influences both countries in a significant manner. Here’s what Kate Davies, a Scottish designer, says about the Scottish Madras fabric:
Semi-sheer muslins with openwork patterns were traded from, and associated with the Indian port, and, in much the same culturally appropriative way that Paisley became a byword for textiles originating in Kashmir, so an Ayrshire iteration of Madras’s gauzy, lacey muslins began to be produced in the mills of the Irvine valley from the 1870s onwards.
The influence of the Scottish in Madras is underrated. For example, a much loved governor of Madras named Thomas Munro predicted quite early on that the European colonisers would have to leave the country. They helped Christianity flourish in Madras. The Scottish lace is a part of their contribution.
When we think of Scots, we think of the bagpiping, skirt-wearing men who roam happily around the countryside. The Madras fabric looks somewhat like those skirts. When the East India Company first came to India, back in the seventeenth century, they were dissatisfied with the cloth material present in their country. They embarked on a voyage to find good fabric and came across the fabric produced in Madras. This fabric dates far back into the second century.
The person who found the fabric specifically was Francis Day. About Madras he said that it is “the only place for paintings (actually chintz imprinted with colored designs using wooden blocks ), so much desired… and likewise great store of longcloath and morrees” (a blue cotton cloth).” They first formed a modern outpost. Then, they exempted duties on Indian merchants so these merchants would agree to sell them the fabric. This worked, and the fabric flourished under the Company.
The predominant colours in the Madras fabric were black, red and blue checks. These colours are quite famous in lungis today. Apart from the traditional Brahmin white and gold, these colours are commonly seen among the South Indians. These same colours are predominantly found in Scottish skirts, apart from the familiar green. They, too, have checks. Quite a coincidence?
It is believed that when the Scottish took over in the 1800s, they introduced plaids into the Madras fabric. The plaids were in vogue because, in 1822, King George visited Scotland, and since then plaids became popular.
After the East India Company got their hands on the fabric, it travelled far places and was worn by people in many countries. It was particularly loved by people from the Middle East and Africa. African women wore them as turbans and skirts. But then came stiff competition for the Madras fabric. This competition was from the U.S.
In the nineteenth century, the British traded cotton extensively through the U.S. Madras fabric lost its popularity but gained one thing – the plaids. It was known as a fashion element because of the plaids that it came in. Despite losing some of its customers, Madras fabric remained popular. In 1919 there was a reported shortage of cloth. The real gain in business happened in 1958 with the Brooks Brothers.
The Brooks Brothers manufactured as many Madras fabrics as possible without telling people how to wash them. In the first wash, the Madras fabric ended up bleeding. People began to complain about this. The Brooks Brothers decided to use the complaints as an ad campaign. They coined the tagline “guaranteed to bleed.” This tagline was proof that the Madras fabric from the Brooks Brothers is authentic because they bleed in the first wash.
This worked, and many people brought Madras fabrics from Brooks Brothers. It created more demand and popularised the fabric. Perhaps the people wanted to take the risk and colour their whites in first wash, or they wanted to make sure they remember to keep the whites separate, whichever wild reason makes sense.
One thing about the Madras plaid fabric is that it is cool during summers. That is why the South Indians love it. One can prove the existence of God by saying that the fabric was available in exactly the region with the hottest climate in the country.
The Madras fabric is still very popular is still among the South Indians. The fabrics now appear in a new avatar – that of lungis – and save millions of South Indian men from the intense summer heat by providing the necessary ventilation and comfort.
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