As an island girl from Martinique, one of my childhood memories is a bright and colorful picture of Madras dresses and headgear. I remember that one of my favorite little dresses was made of rainbow madras and white fabric (maybe that’s part of why I’m so in love with pretty much anything bright and colorful today!). Let me tell you the story of Madras: one of the favorite Antillean fashion heritage.
The Madras originated in a city of the same name now called Chennai in India. If you have never heard of it before, it’s a colorful plaid looking hand-weaved fabric initially made out of banana tree fibers and later on of cotton and silk (yeah..because the banana tree threads turned out to break a little too fast). The traditional Madras has a specific smell to it (a mix of vegetable dye and sesame oil) and the way it is weaved creates specific little dots on the fabric which used to be the way to measure and sell the madras.
Two types exist: the one weaved with flat threads and a variety of mixed bright colors (was usually worn and used by the higher class) and the cheaper version called “mouchoir“ that was made with twisted threads of duller colors. The second type was more affordable but as the colors were less intense it was commonly dyed with Arabic gum and chrome yellow to make it more appealing.
Around where I’m from (Martinique & Guadeloupe) Madras is very popular. It is commonly used in clothing, home and table decorations, traditional costumes etc. However, it wasn’t always this way because the Madras story is closely related to the British colonization and this relationship in fact almost cost the existence and use of Madras on these islands! In the 18th century, the British exported a lot of cotton to India to produce huge amounts of Madras which then became popular around Europe. It ended up reaching the French colonies who adopted it in their own way.
Even though it originated from India, not all madras was made there, in fact, a lot of the “good“ madras worn in Martinique and Guadeloupe was/is actually made in Rouen, Normandy (which is said to be the city were the best Madras is made in France!). At first, only white women would wear it on the islands but around the end of 18th-century black women started including it into their wardrobe too and it became the base of many traditional garments such as the traditional Madras headgear and the Madras and white lace dresses. This fabric really is part of the Antillean heritage and identity.
The “tête maré“ headpiece was strongly influenced by Indian headpieces (a sign of dignity in India). For the Antillean, apart from being a way for black women to dodge the ban on wearing hats at that time, it also became a secret way to tell the relationship status of the wearer. It is still a common practice in the Antillean culture nowadays.
Quick meaning of the “tête maré“ knotting:
1 nib = My heart is taken
2 nibs = My heart has an interest but you can try your luck
3 nibs = My heart is taken/ I’m a married woman
4 nibs = I have a big heart and lot’s of space for fun
References & Interesting links:
>If you happen to know/be the source of any picture please let me know so I can credit them/you!<