Style

What is Ancient Madder?

Over the course of the autumn and winter, there’s a good chance you read the phrase “ancient madder” somewhere on the forum, and you may have wondered what it is. Although madder itself has a very, very long history, ancient madder now refers, at least in menswear parlance, exclusively to silk ties. These ties are specially treated to have the characteristically matte – or “chalky” – hand, then dyed with the traditionally dark and dusty colors of the madder plant.

Initially, the “madder” part of ancient madder – or any kind of madder – came from the dye’s origins as an extract of the Rubia tinctorum plant, otherwise known as “madder.” Use of the plant dates back to the Egyptian Empire of 1500 B.C., and it has been found in Africa, Greece, Italy, and central Asia. Most regularly, it was used to produce reds and oranges, including the red coats of the British Army. Like indigo, natural madder dyes were phased out upon the discovery of the plant’s coloring agent, alizarin, and its subsequent synthesis in 1868. It doesn’t help that some of the chemicals present in natural madder root have been shown to cause cancer in rats (that’s not something you have to worry about with the modern, synthetically-dyed ties).

In America, Madder ties became a standby of Ivy style, often found in paisleys and geometric prints alongside stripes and club logos. The colors given by the madder root, and hence by its synthetic replicas,  are generally muted. Think of sandstone, changing leaves, and soft ochres – geometric madder prints remain an Ivy standby, but they’ve also been embraced by men who are after striking but conservative colors. They’re particularly well-suited for fall, when thicker textures and jackets come out of the closet for the changing weather.

Essentially, “ancient madder” refers to very handsome neckties in dark, chalky colors, with a similarly chalky hand. Several companies make “ancient madder” ties, though Styleforum members will be most familiar with names such as Drake’s, Shibumi Berlin, and Sam Hober. Larger brands such as Brooks Bros., Ralph Lauren, and Ben Silver also regularly carry madder ties.

Once you have one, Mr. Bruce Boyer recommends wearing it with a tweed jacket, though most jackets with some heft and texture to them will pair well with madder ties. When wearing a madder tie, do recommend embracing other natural or natural-looking dyes, such as indigos, which pair beautifully with the dark hues of ancient madder ties.

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  1. Interesting article that features one of my all time favorites fabrics. My dear uncle, and sartorial mentor, introduced me to wonderful ties fashioned by Turnbull and Asser from a thick, weighty silk fabric with elegant muted swirls of paisley. “Dusty fields,” he called it. While decades have passed since that introduction, and despite generations of shmatas making their way in and out of my closet, those handsome ties remain a constant in my life. And I think of my uncle, and smile, every time I secure one of these gems around my neck.