Madras, a cultural fabric often used in the U.S. Virgin Islands and many of its sister islands in the Caribbean is a dyed plaid fabric that dates back to the early 14th century. Originating in the Indian city formerly known as Madras, it was handwoven and often worn by the working class as a light-wear clothing option for hotter tropical environments.
The fabric made its way from India to the Middle East and eventually Northern Africa after becoming a commodity for European trade. The fabric’s popularity led to its introduction to West Africa by the Portuguese.
English author Paul Crask cites members of the Igbo tribe from Nigeria as those responsible for bringing madras to the Caribbean through the transatlantic slave trade. They bore the tradition of wearing madras on Sundays — their days off — or during festivities. Madras also grew in popularity in Louisiana as well as in French-Caribbean islands, where strict Tignon Laws barred African women from displaying their hair as a way to curb European men from pursuing them.
Required to wear headdresses at all times, African women’s creativity allowed them to create ornate wraps made of silks and other fine fabrics and decorated with feathers and beads. When the Spanish governor of New Orleans attempted to further suppress them by prohibiting the use of feathers, silk fabric, and jewels, they began sporting colorful headwraps made of madras with manipulated folds and points as a form of self-expression.
The style trickled down to the islands of Martinique, Dominica, and Guadeloupe — eventually spreading throughout the rest of the Caribbean.
In the centuries following madras’ introduction to the Caribbean, the fabric has become a staple of West Indian culture. Madras served as both a fashion statement and a message of availability, with headdresses traditionally bearing a specific number of folded points to signify whether a woman is married, engaged or available to be courted.
While the U.S. Virgin Islands code does not specify madras as the official fabric of the territory, it has been the most commonly used fabric in traditional festivities and celebrations. Over time the traditions of old have faded with the rise of modern customs.
For much of the last decade, younger Virgin Islanders have been accused of being less involved or disinterested in traditional activities and even less likely to wear madras or incorporate it into their clothing outside of annual festival activities. In my own upbringing, I remember madras as something worn by elders or quadrille dancers. The only glimpses of madras being incorporated into modern fashion by younger locals were during our annual agricultural fair or in pageants where certain segments required cultural wear.
Despite the apparent decline of cultural traditions, homage must be paid to tradition bearers like Bradley Christian, Valrica Bryson, the late Janice Tutein, former Senator Shawn Michael Malone — and many more — who have been continuously promoted Virgin Islands cooking, music, and traditional wear.
Joining the ranks of our tradition and culture bearers is a growing group of millennial U.S. Virgin Islanders who have found ways to merge modern art, the evolving digital landscape, and fashion of the 2010s with the territory’s most recognized traditional fabric.
Shamari Haynes, the founder of the #SimplySAVAGE brand on the island of St. Croix which is comprised of two separate carnival troupes, Simply Sophisticated and SAVAGE Festival. Haynes became one of the frontrunners of the modern madras movement in 2008 when he premiered “Crucian Cocktail Party,” a madras costume section of his Simply Sophisticated troupe designed to reflect local waitresses “with the showgirl flair.” He later went on to premiere a madras-themed section of his troupe in 2017.
“I’ve always had a love for madras and how beautiful it looked when worn casually in the day or elegantly at night. Our [original ] traditional fabric is 100% cotton and Gingham,” Haynes said. “It’s a part of our story not only as Virgin Islanders but as West Indians in general.”
This year Haynes passed down the reigns of #SimplySAVAGE to Wendy Aurelien to begin work with the newly established Division of Festivals of the Department of Tourism. Before the transition, the group held its annual Festival of the Bands costume premiere which gave the public a first look at the 2019/2020 edition of both troupes.
The festival included a fashion show by another millennial Virgin Islander and #SimplySAVAGE collaborator known for her use of madras, Giana Christopher — also known as “designs by Regal.” In the world of social media, Christopher’s designs have drastically grown in popularity. In a recent interview, Christopher cited a lack of local pride in madras fabric as the reason she incorporated it into her designs.
“I saw the growth of African print fabric used in fashions and realized we [the Caribbean] have not been promoting our identifying cultural fabric as well as we should,” Christopher said.
Christopher, who typically creates freehand sketches her designs, sourced from local fabrics combines online fashion trends with traditional looks from a number of Caribbean islands. Local models have begun sporting her off-the-shoulder madras tops, maxi skirts, and necklaces. She hopes not only to bring more attention to the fabric as a unique aspect of Caribbean culture but also hopes to “inspire interest, research and conversations [about] the Caribbean diaspora.”
Christopher’s designs have been shared across dozens of social media pages and have even been sported across the globe by local bloggers during their travels in an effort to share U.S. Virgin Islands culture with the world.
The connections among millennial Virgin Islanders seeking to increase madras’ popularity continue in collaborations among designers and local photographers. Markida Scotland, owner of creative brand “Local Lady Media” based in St. Croix recently began utilizing Christopher’s designs in her shoots. “Years ago [someone] said madras wasn’t fashionable and we needed to retire it,” Scotland said in reference to her desire to shoot the fabric.
Scotland partnered with Christopher to make her designs available to clients wanting portraits around the island. She is also an advocate for celebrating neglected locations on island, often ignored in photoshoots.
“I think what really irked me is that we want to take from all these outside sources when we can actually brand and market our culture, Scotland said. “Kente fabric is a hot item in the states but we treat madras like some kind of stepchild.”
Photographer Chalana Brown is another tradition bearer on St. Croix who has been a strong advocate of madras and other Virgin Islands traditions. She is known for a recent photography project entitled “The Madras That Binds All Ahwe” — after local poet Richard Schrader’s piece of the same name — which utilized madras and recognized it as a cloth that binds all of the Caribbean islands.
“Photography and fashion [have] enabled me to expose young Virgin Islanders to cultural traditions […] to illustrate that traditional wear can be fresh and appealing,” Brown said. “Frida Kahlo, the famous painter, always walked around in her native Mexican traditional wear […] She was featured on the cover of Vogue in 1937. We should take pride in our identity; it sets us apart.”
Through the efforts of tradition bearers like those mentioned in this piece, madras has made a refreshing comeback in Virgin Islands culture and a “debut” of its own on social media. The most widely used social media network in the world — Facebook, who now boasts 2.7 billion monthly users as of 2019 — is just 11 years old. Meaning much of the world’s population of over 7 billion people likely have never experienced traditional madras stylings in a Virgin Islands context.
Designers and photographers have found ways not only to incorporate the fabric with modern fashion but have also advocated for cultural pride and the celebration of local traditions. The growth of digital media may be seen to some as the death of local culture and traditions.
These Virgin Islanders, however, see it as an increased opportunity to market those traditions to the younger generation and the rest of the world — effectively making them digital culture bearers.
It is time for the U.S. Virgin Islands to brand itself in ways other digital brands and social media influencers have found impactful: utilizing images, video, fashion, and technology in order to send a message and create an identity in the online world. Madras, a fabric that has made its way from rural India over the course of seven centuries into the very fiber of Caribbean culture, continues to be a valuable aspect of that identity.
Submitted September 14th, 2019: by Jeaiza M. Quiñones, founder of the lifestyle blog Gyul Meets World and Huffington Post contributor. Jeaiza is a popular digital influencer and is also a contributor to State of the Territory News.