Question: When is a check shirt much more than just any old check shirt? Answer: When it’s a traditional Madras shirt – as timeless and iconic as the style gets, and a summer wardrobe staple for men in the know.
Madras is a lightweight cotton that’s perfect for the type of shirt you need when it’s hot outside and you want to look cool. Yet there’s also a genuine art and history to the Madras shirt.
“Madras fabric is the eponymous cloth traditionally made in Madras [now called Chennai], India,” says Paul Simons, son and business partner of legendary London menswear designer John Simons. “It’s a loosely woven pure cotton that is traditionally dyed in a plethora of muted – and some not so muted – check patterns.
“It’s characteristically soft and lightweight, which lends itself perfectly to the button down shirt, creating an easy-to-wear and extremely comfortable summer shirt. It was particularly popular in the Ivy League style of 1960s USA.”
Like a lot of menswear classics, the Madras shirt was popular around the middle of the 20th century. It’s pure Americana, but is a little unfairly associated with US tourists. It was also worn by mods in 1960s Britain and suedeheads in the 1970s, although you could never call it counter-culture. Worn correctly, however, it’s proof that the much-derided short-sleeve shirt should have a permanent spot in your wardrobe.
“It would definitely be seen as a casual shirt,” says Simons. “But these days, just wearing a shirt can be seen as smart. The shirt itself should have unlinked collar and cuffs to give it that perfect relaxed feel. Personally, I like to wear them untucked with plain shorts, tucked in an opened collar with a pair of jeans, or even with a knitted tie.”
The Best Brands For Madras Shirts
Madras might be a traditionally Indian cloth, but Ralph Lauren is a cornerstone of modern US culture – a brand that exudes wealth, corporate success, and fine American living. It’s also standard issue for anyone who likes preppy fashion, so of course it does a good line in Madras shirts. Colourful and extremely well made, these shirts prove that being square might be hip after all.
John Simons was one of the top menswear designers in 1960s London – the man who kitted out the mods and suedeheads. The business started back in the 1950s, importing Ivy League-style clothes from the US and adding a British twist. With a store in Marylebone, London, the Paul Simons look is still going strong – a style that’s both defined generations and transcended them. Authentic Madras shirts have always been a key part of the collections, such as this long-sleeved blue and yellow check made (as with all Paul Simons Madras shirts) in India from genuine Madras fabric.
Much like Ralph Lauren, J.Crew is another American staple – an accessible, lower-cost brand with high fashion aspirations and styling. At the forefront of the growing menswear industry, J. Crew has been a proponent of the ever-popular urban lumberjack look – all checked shirts, denim, and big hipster beards – which makes the brand a natural fit for Madras shirts, too. J.Crew’s version is traditionally made in India, with a relaxed fit through the body and sleeves, and exclusive plaid patterns.
Abercombie & Fitch
These days, you don’t need to be a super-shredded college jock to shop at Abercombie & Fitch. The brand goes back almost 130 years, beginning life as a sports goods store then becoming the place for preppy youth style. But A&F has been undergoing another change in recent years, harking back to its sporting history to redefine its public image. A&F worked alongside Chennai artisans to produce its Madras range, which has a range of colourways. Our pick is this deep maroon check – a look that will work for both summer and autumn.
The Sweden-based fashion label dates all the way back to the early 1900s. Origibally based in the US, it was a staple of the midcentury Ivy League look and still produces clothes based on that old school Americana. It’s also known for popularising the button down shirt. Unsurprisingly, this indigo Madras shirt is a no-nonsense classic, described as an ‘American sportswear icon’ – the kind that fits both a smart or casual outfit.
Jacamo’s promise is to make clothes shopping easy, particularly for men who struggle to find well-fitting clothes in regular high street retailers. So thank the tailoring gods for Jacamo, because shopping for bigger sizes is an unnecessarily arduous chore – something most big-name brands still haven’t caught up with. True to form, its mishmash Madras shirt comes in a range of sizes – from small to 5XL – but most important is the brand’s electric designs.
You know where are with the Gap – clothes that look good on just about everyone and stores that have something for almost any taste. And if you’re after a good-looking, well-made, and (most importantly – affordable) checked shirt, then Gap is the place to go. It’s no surprise that the American mainstay is a reliable place for Madras designs. There are several available, including this smart short-sleeved edition with a burgundy and green check.
Established in 1976, Beams is a big name retailer and clothing brand in its native Japan. It’s known for doing the basics well – mid-level premium clothes in a smart-casual style. This Madras shirt is part of the Beams Plus range, a rugged and masculine look based on heritage and workwear-style clothing. A pop-over shirt that’s more a Madras style than authentically Indian-made (because it’s Japanese-made, of course), it has the distinct vintage, worn-in feel of the Beams Plus range.
Not necessarily a household name, but Drake’s has a prestigious history of creating high-end, high ticket menswear. It was founded in 1977 in the East End of London and has its flagship store alongside the great and good of London tailoring, located just off Savile Row. Drake’s knows full well the importance of the Madras shirt as a stylish man’s staple, and brings a touch of English class to the design, with its shirts handcrafted in the UK.