Madras Shirts for Summer

I love madras - the colorful, airy fabric named after the Indian city from which it originally came. The stuff is lightweight and very breathable, which means it makes for the perfect summer shirt. Madras shirts are a wonderful accompaniment to trousers or suits made from cotton or linen, and of course should be worn with summer appropriate footwear, such as loafers or suede bucks. Unfortunately, good madras shirts are hard to find these days, and not because all the new stuff is colorfast, instead of bleeding and fading easily like the ones from yesteryear (for that truly dégagé look). Rather, it’s because most don’t fit me well or they lack the design details I want. 

My solution has been to get ones custom made. You can buy madras fabrics online through Atlantis Fabrics. They have two web pages - here and here - dedicated to them, and many are just $6 a yard. Given that the average sized man only needs about two yards per shirt, that’s just $12 for materials.

You can also check fabric stores to see if they have anything suitable. Above are some swatches from Rosen & Chadick, a fabric shop in Manhattan. Though they’re in New York City, they’re more than happy to send out fabric swatches for free. After you’ve figured out what you want, you can call them and pay for your order with a credit card. Most selections are $15 a yard. 

Once you have your fabrics, you’ll need to find a shirtmaker who is willing to take them from you. If you don’t have someone local you can go to, I recommend Cottonwork. They can custom make something to your body measurements or, if you’re hesitant about the process, they can copy any existing shirt you have. Just send them your best fitting shirt along with any notes about things you’d like tweaked (if any). They charge about $45 per shirt if you’re supplying the fabrics. 

If you’re reluctant to go the custom route, there are a bunch of ready-to-wear companies you can consider, such as O’Connell’s, J PressBrooks Brothers, and Dann Online. Some of these will fit quite full, such as the ones at Dann Online, while others can be very slim, such as Brooks’ Extra Slim Fits. 

You can also check out Gant Rugger and Ralph Lauren. Gant Rugger’s shirts are very slim and mostly meant to be worn untucked, while Ralph Lauren has the fuller ”Classic Fit” and slimmer “Custom Fit.” Finally, for something cheaper, try J Crew. In the past, they offered disappointingly drab designs, but this season’s are pleasantly colorful (as madras should be). If you wait till the end of the season, you can easily find their madras shirts discounted by 40-50%. 

(Cottonwork will be a Put This On advertiser next month, but our advertising and editorial processes are separate. - Jesse)

I talked yesterday about some lesser known summer fabrics, but let’s get back to basics for a moment. You know what makes summer truly great? Linen shirts. 

Seriously, I love linen shirts, and I’m always surprised by how few men wear them. Their gauzy, wrinkly nature adds a really nice texture and can give you a much more interesting casual look. Linen is also great for hot days. It has an airy, open weave that allows your skin to breathe and feel much cooler than it would under, say, oxford cloth. Additionally, since all their charm is in how they wrinkle, you don’t have to iron them. 

The classic linen shirt is the white collared button up. However, since you can’t bleach linen (as the harsh chemical really destroys the fibers), keeping a white linen shirt white can be a bit hard depending on your habits. White linen can also be very bright; if you’re a bit pale, it can visually wash you out. Thus, if you don’t think you can manage a white linen shirt, I’ve rounded up some other options for you. 

For simple basics, check out Brooks Brothers’ linen shirts. These come in a variety of interesting colors, my favorite of which is their light blue. They also have a dark blue version, which can look great with khaki chinos. J Crew has a similar dark blue model, and it fits slightly slimmer than Brooks Brothers. They also have the same shirt in bengal stripe and gingham. The fabric on J Crew’s is a bit heavier than some of the others I’m featuring here, which means the creasing that you’ll get isn’t as sharp. I prefer this, personally, as I think it makes the shirt look more rumpled than creased, but it’s a matter of taste. 

For something a slightly more than your basics, check out Our Legacy. They have a slightly worn looking striped linen shirt that has a bit of old world Western European feel to it. Boden also has some interesting plaids and stripes, as well a linen “grandad” shirt, which is basically a kind of linen henley. It’s a bit more unique looking, but I think would still make for a great casual piece this summer. 

Lastly, a word about marketing. As you shop for linen shirts, you may notice some brands, such as J Crew, heavily market theirs as being “Irish linen.” Now, linen is to Ireland what cashmere is to Scotland, but this doesn’t mean that linens from other countries aren’t as good. Plus, being labeled Irish linen just means the fabric was woven in Ireland; the material doesn’t necessarily have to be milled there. The term is mostly a marketing ploy, so you should be wary. In the end, the most important thing is for you to see how the linen wrinkles, and whether you’re comfortable with the fabric.

If you’re on the fence about wearing a “wrinkled shirt,” I recommend just going into a store and trying one on. You may find you actually like it, and after getting used it all summer, you’ll lament the coming of the fall season, when you have to go back to your poplins and oxfords. 

Summer is approaching, and if you’ve been paying attention to menswear for more than a year, you know every menswear magazine and blog is about to run the same threadbare advice - wear seersucker and cotton suits, and utilize linen when you can, in order to manage the heat. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll cover the same topics, but let’s start with a little advanced placement menswear. Many of you already know the basic summer fabrics, but what else is available? 

Well, for suits, I recommend fresco - a wool fabric specifically designed for summer wear in the hottest climates. The fabric is woven in an open, porous weave, which allows your skin to more easily breathe and take advantage of every breeze that comes through. The fabric isn’t fragile either; the yarn is made with a high twist in order to give it the tensile strength it needs to compensate for the fabric’s open weave. The result is a high-grade, cool, crisp fabric that looks just like any other worsted wool from a distance. It’s a great way keep cool in the summer, but not compromise your elegance by resorting to cotton, linen, or seersucker for your suiting. 

Similarly, you don’t have to just rely on cotton or linen pants in the summer. Try tropical weight wools, otherwise known as lightweight wools (of which fresco is considered one). These work much better for trousers than cotton because they’re, again, woven in a more open weave and allow your skin to breathe. They also help wick away sweat, bringing them away from your skin and towards the surface of the wool, where it can evaporate. Cotton, on the other hand, just absorbs sweat, which cuts down on air exchange. It also wrinkles a lot more than lightweight wool, which makes it look terrible, especially on hot days. It may seem counter intuitive to wear wool pants in the summer, but if you get the right weight and weave, it’s actually your smartest bet.

For shirts, aim for the same open weaving. Here I recommend voile, a cool, almost gauzy, cotton fabric. The problem with many types of voile, however, is that they can be a bit sheer. In fact, the name derives from French and means “veil.” Many aren’t fit for the modest man, but if you get one in a textured surface, and in a color like blue or ecru, it’s much more opaque and wearable. Alternatively, you can also opt for madras, an East Indian fabric that has a lightweight, airy quality. The patterns can be bit loud, but that’s kind of the charm. True madras is a bit hard to find nowadays, but I did a round up of madras shirts a while ago, so you can read through this post to see some of your options. 

Linen and seersucker are great, but there’s an entire world of fabrics out there that is under explored. Know what’s available to you and you’ll have a much more unique wardrobe this summer than your standard cotton jacket, chinos, and polo uniform (though there’s nothing wrong with that, either).