The Square Root
Harpers’ Bazaar, India
Almost like a leitmotif on the streets of southern India, the Madras check has survived for centuries as an everyday textile of the fishermen. It's familiar, quotidian vibe lends itself to the languorous pace of life along the Coromandel Coast, yet it is arresting with its bands of vibrant colour that playfully intersect each other on diaphanous cotton, skillfully woven by hand. This traditional textile, consisting primarily of checks or stripes, originated on the handlooms in small villages scattered around Madras (now Chennai) sometime in the 1200s.
As with most Indian textiles the Madras check catapulted onto the global stage as a result of the worldwide textile trade in the 14th century, and assimilated into cultures from Africa to America. It was initially a square length of cloth, referred to as RMHK for Real Madras Hand Kerchief, and would bleed colour on washing, transforming into a new fabric each time. Traditionally, the checkered design was woven into gorgeous pattu (silk) sarees that were passed down through generations as heirloom artefacts. Well-suited to tropical heat, it is worn as a lungi over shorts or is fashioned into shirts. And the Madras check continues to dot the streetscape in the subcontinent.
Fashion designer Aneeth Arora of péro explains the versatility of the check, "Checks are the oldest and easiest pattern achieved on a loom after plain cloth, and that makes it a truly ancient craft." By elevating this coastal textile into the realm of high fashion, péro has masterfully championed the check, crafting a sharp, syncretic visual language that incorporates indigenous dressing with Arora's modern sensibilities. She takes the check into unchartered fashion territories, pairing it with ikat and denim, or on standalone jackets, trousers and cascading dresses, at times even using its grid-like pattern as a blueprint for the brand's signature floral French knot embroideries.
As textile designer Chinar Farooqi points out, "The visual aspect of checks, its spontaneity of design, its permutations and combinations is really the most fascinating aspect." India's rich history of handloom production and textile trade is what led her to explore the check with her label Injiri. With her resplendently-coloured checks on exquisitely crafted cotton shirt dresses, gingham blouses and quilted jackets, Injiri makes one pause to notice the inherent beauty of this textile. "Whether to inspire artists or fashion designers, the check will always be around to excite the senses," says Farooqui. Yet despite its elevation by names like péro and Injiri, the Madras check remains a humble, everyday cloth for its ease of use and clarity of design. This peculiar duality that it carries – of being both quotidian and couture – is what makes it an irresistable and compelling textile.
As featured in the November 2019 Issue of Harper’s Bazaar