New Delhi: The one thing that is common between the Beatles and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the hip-length, mandarin-collared vest that has, eponymously, come to be called the Nehru jacket.
Popularised by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1960s, the Nehru jacket has become the go-to sartorial choice for formal events. Politicians from various political parties are often seen with the vest at parliamentary proceedings and campaign rallies.
In recent times, it has become the formal wear of choice for Prime Minister Modi. In fact, two years ago, the jacket became the centre of a controversy after South Korean President Moon Jae-in, referred to the clothing as the ‘Modi vest’.
“The Nehru jacket is actually an off-shoot of the traditional men’s garments, achkan and sherwani, which were prevalent during the nineteenth century,” Ruby Kashyap Sood, a professor at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, told ThePrint.
On Jawaharlal Nehru’s 131st birth anniversary this 14 November, ThePrint tells you all about the history of the Nehru jacket and how it came to be called so.
A long history
The Nehru jacket is a descendant of the achkan and the sherwani — a closed-neck, coat-like garment that was worn by the Hindu and Muslim noble class in royal courts.
The history of an achkan is long and winded, one that is said to date back to the first century. The earliest mention of the achkan or coat-like gown worn by men and women is from the Kushan Empire under the Yeuzhis, a nomadic tribe of Central Asian.
However, the style of achkan and sherwani that we know today was born out of colonial influences as well as the Persian-style kurta.
Sood explained, “The achkan and sherwani came into being due to the colonial influence, introducing European elements, more structured clothing. The bandhgala (closed neck) style was a fusion of traditional and British clothing.”
“The Nehru jacket is the shorter version of the achkan. It is hip-length whereas the achkan falls below the knees. The length was perhaps modified after taking inspiration from the English men’s coat,” she added.
The Nehru jacket, like India itself, was therefore born out of a long history of conquests and migrations, making it an apt marker of “Indian” fashion.
Throughout his life, Nehru wore longer and shorter versions of the achkan.
“Since the bandhgala outer garment (long and shorter versions) was donned by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru during the 1940s, it became a style statement and was popularly known as the ‘Nehru jacket’, after him,” Sood said.
But it was only in 1964, the year Nehru died, that the garment became globally recognised.
When Nehru was on Vogue’s cover
The year was 1964 and it was the middle of the Cold War. The Beatles were taking the US by storm, the Soviet Union had launched two scientific satellites and tensions in the subcontinent were high over talks of a possible plebiscite in Kashmir.
But what really sent ripples in the fashion world was a photoshoot by Jawaharlal Nehru for the Vogue magazine. Nehru was pictured wearing his characteristic hip-length tailored coat on the cover of the world’s foremost fashion magazine.
Post the cover shoot, the vest instantly became the trend du jour and since then, it has been associated with Nehru.
A year later, the Beatles were seen wearing the ‘Nehru jacket’ during their performance in New York’s Shea Stadium on 15 August.
Hollywood was also inspired by it. In the 1962 James Bond movie Dr No, actor Sean Connery donned a brown Nehru jacket in one scene.
In 1997, Mike Myers’ character in ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’, Dr Evil, was also seen in a grey Nehru jacket.
But the jacket’s popularity didn’t end there.
While it became quite the fashion statement in western countries, more and more politicians in India were seen wearing it. From former prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh to PM Modi, the Nehru jacket has been worn by leaders across the spectrum and has become a symbol of power.
However, the irony, as pointed out Tehelka, is that even though it was Nehru who had popularised the jacket, he himself preferred models that were more akin to the longer achkan.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Nehru left an everlasting mark on the fashion world and Indian culture, one that was lauded even by Time magazine, which adjudged the vest as part of the ‘top 10 global political fashion statements’ in 2012.
This report has been updated to reflect that Sean Connery wore the Nehru jacket in the movie Dr No and not Octopussy.