The fabric of choice
How seersucker and “bleeding Madras” came out of names for a fabric or a method of weaving.
The first Wordspeak about the meaning of names of various fabrics was written without the faintest idea that it could beget a never-ending procession of columns on fabrics. Like the Prometheus myth, the column grew back every time I tried to put an end to it. Hence this tailpiece — to stop the column from getting out of hand.
The December Wordspeak explained how a state is called ‘a purple state’ during political campaigns in U.S. elections for its mix of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) voters. And that in the recent presidential election in the U.S., purple was used quite frequently by the media as a synonym for a swing state (where the margin between Democratic and Republican votes is narrow). Several readers wanted to know why the Republican-leaning states were painted red and the Democrats-leaning states blue.
Blue or red?
The following quote from Evan Morris should do: “The use of red and blue as colour codes on maps of electoral results and during political campaigns actually dates back to at least 1908 when the Washington Post printed a special supplement in which Republican states were coloured red and Democratic blue. The colours were apparently arbitrarily assigned in that case, although in later years both parties strove to claim blue (as in “true blue Americans”) and avoid red, with its connotations of radicalism. Finally, in 1976, the TV networks agreed to a formula to avoid any implication of favouritism in colour selections. The colour of the incumbent party, initially set as blue for Gerald Ford’s Republican ticket in that year, would flip every four years. Consequently, a successful challenger runs again in four years, as the incumbent, under the same colour. So in 1992, the challenger Clinton was red on the maps, and in 1996, incumbent Clinton was also red. Challenger Bush, red in 2000, was red again as an incumbent in 2004. But perhaps because the pundits decreed 2000 to be a watershed election, the “red/blue” divide has assumed a broader political significance (at least to pundits), and although the formula dictates that the Republicans should be carrying the blue flag in 2008, it will be interesting to see how the networks colour their maps.”
Ganesh Mahadevan of Indian Navy sent an expression from the Russian language “Velvet Weather”, which is used to describe the much awaited time of the year between summer and winter when temperatures are around the 20s and there is sunshine — similar to the American expression “Indian Summer”. He also asked, “While you are on fabrics, would ‘seersucker’ and ‘bleeding madras’ be of interest?”
Yes, it would. Actually seersucker — along with burlesque, sleazy, bureau, Sufi and bombast — was next in line for etymological surgery because all those came out of names for a fabric or some method of weaving. Seersucker, a light cotton cloth with an uneven surface and a pattern of lines on it worn mostly in summer, derived from Hindi úîr-úakkar, sîr-sakkar and Urdu shîrshakar, literally, milk and sugar, from Persian shîr-o-shakar. In the 18th century, striped Indian cotton was known as seersucker. It was the fabric of choice in hot weather and a seersucker suit was standard wear for many men in Southern U.S. during the sweltering summer months. They say in Southern U.S. that one is not a southern gentleman unless one has at least one seersucker suit and slept at least once with a black woman. The US Senate holds a Seersucker Thursday in June, where the participants dress in traditionally Southern clothing.
Seersucker is mentioned prominently in the Official Preppy Handbook. Preppy clothes or styles are very neat, in a way that is typical of students who go to expensive private schools in the U.S. In the 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss, the U.S. children’s writer, it goes “…And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo /And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo,/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!” Nerd was originally the name of an imaginary strange creature until it began to denote someone interested only in computers and technical things, or a very boring and unfashionable person not good in social situations.
Some historians claim that the first cloth hand-woven in (or near) Madras was made of yarn spun from the tip-skin of ancient trees, and was called karvelem patta. Initially it could have any design. The typical check design, some believe, evolved “when the native hand weavers simply copied (with some modifications) the tartan patterns worn by the Scottish regiments that occupied southern India in the 1800s…. And in the cloth’s heyday, over 150,000 new plaid patterns were fashioned, using homemade vegetable dyes that bled, ran and blended to create a stunning effect,” hence Bleeding Madras.
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