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Madras Shirt Style Guide: How to Wear It + Our 3 Top Picks

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William Barton
Expertise:

Style, Grooming, Fitness, Boots, Workwear

William has been covering men's style, grooming, and fitness topics for The Adult Man since 2018 as both a writer and photographer. Based in North Carolina, he's also the face of premier men's boots website BootSpy.com and the popular BootSpy YouTube channel. If William could only wear one outfit for the rest of his life, it'd be slim blue jeans, a green fitted oxford shirt, Chelsea boots, and a nice watch. Read full bio.


Last Updated: Feb 23, 2024
5 min read
closeup of model wearing pink madras shirt from j.crew

Summer came quickly this year, didn’t it?

One day, we were huddled in our jackets, and the next, we’re sweating like we’re about to meet the girlfriend’s parents for the first time. 

With the heat still on full blast, it’s time to bust out one of our favorite choices for summer: the Madras shirt.

We’re breaking down our three top picks in this Madras shirt guide, plus giving you some background on the fabric and tips on how to rock it in style. 

What is Madras Cloth? 

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Madras cloth is a type of cotton muslin that’s been dyed in a plaid pattern on both sides of the fabric. It’s known for how lightweight and breathable it is, which makes it a summer staple for many prep style enthusiasts. 

This fabric originated in Madras (now Chennai), India and became global as far back as the early 1600’s as Dutch and English traders set up posts and began exporting textiles. 

Unique Characteristics of Madras

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The most authentic Madras cloth is hand woven and hand dyed, so you can expect some irregularities that would otherwise be considered defects. 

But with hand-made clothes, these slight defects should actually be counted as signals of quality and value. 

Madras is extremely lightweight and breathable, so it’s an excellent choice for wearing a collared shirt without overheating. 

How Did Madras Fabric Become Preppy?

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Madras cloth was once the fabric of the Indian peasant class, so how did it become a staple of the affluent prep style class of the US and England?

Funny story, actually.

A fabric buyer sold 10,000 yards of Madras fabric to Brooks Brothers in 1958. The instructions were to wash the cloth gently in cold water. But unfortunately, Brooks Brothers didn’t get the message and sent their Madras clothing to customers with the wrong care instructions, causing thousands of unhappy folks who found their brightly checkered shirts bleeding and losing color. 

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David Ogilvy, one of the greatest advertisers who’s ever lived, created the campaign for Brooks Brothers: “Guaranteed to Bleed.” 

He turned Madras clothes’ biggest issue into its most valuable feature. 

But Madras cloth started becoming a status symbol in the US during the Great Depression. At the time, the fabric was popular in the Caribbean, and not common throughout the states. 

Anyone who could afford to travel to the tropics during the Depression obviously wasn’t hurting for cash, so the special cloth became a symbol of affluence. 

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And since Madras hit the mainstream in the late 50s with Ogilvy’s famous marketing stunt, the cloth has been a tried-and-true staple of prep schoolers. 

How to Style Madras Shirts

closeup of model wearing pink madras shirt from j.crew

Madras shirts are bright and bold enough on their own, so we recommend keeping the rest of your outfit neutral. 

The most common pairing is with khaki shorts or chinos. Of course, if you want to complete the preppy look, add a pair of boat shoes and recite your Alma Mater at the Elks Club. 

We prefer keeping the sleeves rolled a few times to compliment the laid back nature of these shirts. 

model skipping rock in jcrew madras shirt and white dock shorts

Keep your shorts or pants on the lighter end of the spectrum as summer looks steer away from black and navy. Be careful adding any other bright colors or patterns, as you’re almost guaranteed to clash. There’s enough going on with the shirt already, and you don’t need to add any other visual intrigue.

3 Best Madras Shirts in 2021

J.Crew Madras Shirts

model walking out of house with pink madras shirt and performance chinos from J.Crew

J.Crew goes hard on Madras shirts. They have the widest selection of any brand we’ve seen, so you can browse to find your perfect color combination. 

Madras shirts are staples of classic prep style, and no one does them better than the prep style titan, J.Crew.

What I Like

  • The fit isn’t too large or too small. Madras is lightweight so it needs to fit well to look flattering.

  • Considering the quality, the price is very fair.

  • J.Crew often holds awesome sales and their free-shipping is clutch. 

What I Don’t Like

  • This isn’t so much directed at J.Crew as it is Madras shirts. You need to iron your shirts. Otherwise, they look far too sloppy. 

What Other Reviewers Say

J.Crew is a beloved nation-wide brand, and they didn’t get that way through shotty quality and service. Obviously, with such a huge brand, you’ll get a different experience depending on which of the squillion different stores they have, but reviewers online report a pleasant shopping experience.

The Verdict

For a massive variety, all with excellent fit, go to the source and pick up one of J.Crew’s Madras shirts

When we gave them a try, we were pleased with how lightweight and breathable the shirts are. Plus, there are some nice looking summer-fall transition colorways.

You might be able to snag a few shirts on sale, so it’s always worth a look.

For prep style, J.Crew’s balance of cost and quality is our top choice.

J.Crew Madras Shirt

J.Crew has been holding down the Madras game for decades. With shirts as thin and breathable as Madras cloth, you need an excellent fit and solid construction---otherwise it just looks sloppy. J.Crew has the best versions we've found.

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Burberry Plaid

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This high-fashion luxury brand is known for their plaid. And that notoriety comes at a cost. 

If you want some of that brand-cache, Burberry has a range of plaid shirts done Madras style that will make you look twice. It’s far from your traditional Madras shirt, but if you like to make a fashion-statement and don’t mind forking out some cash, Burberry is the go.

What I Like

  • Bold color combinations and mismatched patterns.

  • Matching shirts and shorts available, like a fashion-forward Madras suit.

  • Interesting fits that are much less conventional. 

What I Don’t Like

  • The quality is good, but not necessarily $300+ good. 

  • If you don’t care about brand-name clothing, Burberry loses much of its appeal and value. 

What Other Reviewers Say

Reviewers online mostly gush about Burberry. In our experience, that’s true with most luxury brands because folks who are willing to pay the premium already have bought into the brand culture. Usually the quality is top-notch so there aren’t complaints, though usually you can find the same quality for half the price, too.

The Verdict

Burberry does plaid better than any other luxury brand—they even have a pattern known around the world as their distinctive look. 

Shop this brand if you’re looking for something a little more outside the box in terms of color combos and fits. You’ll find much more fashion-forward, less traditional plaid shirts here than you would with J.Crew. 

And if you find something you like, be ready to pay the premium.

Burberry Madras

Don't expect the ol' straight and narrow stuff with Burberry. They may be a huge designer name, but they didn't earn the reputation by playing it safe.

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J.Crew Factory Madras Shirts

jcrew factory madras shirt screenshot

J.Crew Factory has the same design aesthetic as J.Crew, though at a more budget-friendly rate. 

They don’t have quite the same breadth of Madras shirts, but chances are good you can hop over and find a killer deal on a lightweight summer shirt.

What I Like

  • There are many classic Madras shirt options available.

  • J.Crew Factory ships to over 100 countries, so no matter where you are (mostly), you’ve got access. 

  • The brand does many sales throughout the year, so chances are you can find an absolute bargain.

What I Don’t Like

  • J.Crew Factory doesn’t have the same variety of fit and color options as some of the other brands I’ve looked at. 

What Other Reviewers Say

Over 6,000 reviewers on Influenster give J.Crew Factory a 4.5 rating. The most common refrain is that shoppers can often put together multiple outfits and stay within a budget.

The Verdict

J.Crew Factory is an excellent place to shop for budget staples. Their Madras shirts are no exception, and if you can find a few colorways you like and they’re available in your size, we bet you’ll be pleased with the quality.

Sure, don’t expect to have your mind blown by the construction. But J.Crew Factory’s specialty is in prep style staples done affordably. And there’s no exception with their Madras shirts.

J.Crew Factory Madras Shirt

With J.Crew Factory's end-of-season sales, you can often find Madras shirts that transition well from summer to fall at rock-bottom prices.

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Feeling Cool?

These breathable light shirts aren’t just an excellent summer option—many Madras shirts transition well into fall. Just make sure you pick up the right colors.

If you do some browsing, you’ll find short sleeve versions, slim fit versions, etc.

Just remember to keep the rest of your outfit plain and simple. Let the Madras cloth do all the talking and you’ll look great. 

For more style guides, check out our YouTube channel where we post new reviews, style guides, and life hacks every week. 

FAQs

What is the difference between Madras and plaid?

Madras  is a type of plaid. You can expect brighter, more summery colors from Madras shirts than you would see in a basic plaid shirt.

What does Madras mean?

Madras cloth got its name from the seaside village it was originally made in (modern day Chennai).

Are Madras shirts in style?

Madras shirts are in style in 2020. They’re a good choice if you’re aiming for a preppy look. If you want something more rugged and masculine, or something more minimal and sleek, there are other, more fitting choices.