Millennial Virgin Islanders Are Reviving Cultural Pride Through Madras Styles
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 early 14th century. Originating in the Indian city formerly known as Madras, it was hand woven and often worn by the working class as a light-wear clothing option for hotter tropical environments. Eventually the fabric made its way from India through the Middle East and Northern Africa becoming a commodity for trade. The fabric’s popularity led to its introduction to West Africa by the Portugese.
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 or during festivities. Madras also grew in popularity in Louisiana as well as other French-Caribbean islands, where 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 Caribbean.
In the centuries that followed madras’ introduction to the Caribbean the fabric has been integrated as 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. In places like the U.S. Virgin Islands traditional fabrics include 100% cotton, gingham (a similar plaid fabric), as well as madras. In 2020, the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary even approved a measure that established the official madras of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Still, the traditions of old have sometimes 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 was during our annual agricultural fair or in pageants where certain segments required cultural wear. Despite the apparent decline of cultural traditions, acknowledgment must be made to tradition bearers like Bradley Christian, Valrica Bryson, the late Janice Tutein, former Senator Shawn Michael Malone (and many more) who have been continuously involved in promoting Virgin Islands cooking, music, and traditional wear.
Joining the ranks of our tradition bearers is a growing group of millennial U.S. Virgin Islanders who have found ways to merge modern art, the digital media landscape, and 2010s fashion with the territory’s traditional fabric.
Shamari Haynes is 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 was one of the frontrunners of the modern madras movement when in 2008 he premiered “Crucian Cocktail Party” a madras costume section of his Simply Sophisticated troupe designed to reflect local waitresses “with the showgirl flair.” He also premiered 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, however…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 founded Division of Festivals of the Department of Tourism. Before the transition, the group held their annual Festival of the Bands costume premier which gave the public a first look at the 2019/20 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 social media sphere, Christopher’s designs have drastically grown in popularity. In a recent interview, Christopher cited a local lack of 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 typically freehand sketches her designs, sourcing local fabrics and combining online fashion trends with traditional looks from different Caribbean islands. She hopes not only to bring more attention to the fabric as a unique aspect of Caribbean culture, but also to “inspire interest, research and conversations (about) the Caribbean diaspora.” Christopher’s designs have been seen across dozens of social media pages and have even been sported across the globe by local bloggers during their travels in an effort to represent U.S. Virgin Islands culture.
The connections among millennial Virgin Islanders seeking to increase madras’ popularity continue in collaborations among designers and local photographers. Markida Scotland, owner of the “Local Lady Media” brand on 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 use the fabric.
“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. Kente fabric is a hot item in the states but we treat madras like some kind of stepchild.”
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 that are often disregarded in photoshoots.
Photographer Chalana Brown is another culture bearer on island 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 in an effort to represent 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. 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.”
Finally, in 2019 I stepped into the realm of "modern" culture bearer with the #MyMadras challenge. In an effort to publicize and shed light on all of the aforementioned artists in this article, I launched a digital campaign to encourage Virgin Islanders to incorporate madras outfits, fashion pieces and decor into their lifestyles once again.
Through the effort of this group and the #mymadras movement, madras has made a refreshing comeback in Virgin Islands culture and a “debut” of its own within the local social media sphere. Designers and photographers have found ways not only to incorporate the fabric with modern fashion, but to also advocate for cultural pride and the celebration of local traditions. The growth of digital media may be seen as some as the death of local culture and tradition. These Virgin Islanders, however, see it as an increased opportunity to market those traditions to the younger generation as well as the rest of the world. It is time for the U.S. Virgin Islands to brand itself in the way other digital brands and social media influencers have found impactful: utilizing images, 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.