Nehru’s style statement

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Jawharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

In 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru invited Edward Kutchat, a tribal leader from Car Nicobar island to New Delhi to convince him to hand over additional land for expanding an Indian airfield  in the island.

Kutchat, who was reluctant to give land earlier, could not resist before Pandit Nehru’s persuasion and agreed to provide it. In order to settle the deal, Kutchat asked noting but an Achkan, a cult jacket which Nehru was wearing then, historian Tilak Ranjan Bera describes in his book A journey through Nicobars.

Clad in a polished version of Achkan, a knee-length coat with a stand-up mandarin collar having no lapel and one breast pocket on the left side, tailored by his favorite few, mainly in black, white cream or gray, with a red rose in his button-hole Nehru was the first recognised power-dressing politico in the Indian history.

“Black, white, cream and gray were his favorites. He was a great fan of bamboo fabrics,” Prem Vaish, one of Nehru’s tailors, who now runs a textile shop in South Delhi recalled in an interview with Wall Street Journal.

D Vaish, father of Prem Vaish was the one of the main tailors to the Prime minister and Prem used to accompany him to Teen Murti Bhavan to get measurements and his father in stitching Achkans.

Around hundred miles away from the capital, Akhtar Mehdi, younger one of the Mehdi Brothers in Aligrah who have been stitching clothes mainly for political figures, remembers his father Mehdi Hassan sending Achkans to Jawaharlal Nehru after he opened the shop in 1947. “We have been stitching suits for the political heads including many of the presidents and prime ministers over the years. It was my father Mehdi Hassan who used to stitch Sherwani’s for Nehruji,” Akhtar claims.

Tracing back to history of the well-dressed prime minister, adhering Mohandas Gandhi’s call to boycott non-native goods in 1930, Nehru had given up western suits-which he was wearing till then and moved to homespun Khadi kurtas. But immediately after the British left the nation in 1947, he had thrown away the common-man’s kurtas and took to Achkan, which was the noble court dress back then, writes historian Sankar Ghosh in his biography of Nehru.

“Hardly reminiscent of Gandhi’s famous homespun clothing, the Nehru jacket is a descendant of the northern Indian achkan, a closed-neck, coat like garment usually considered court dress for Indian nobility. Indeed, it was when the jacket was marketed to Western audiences that it took the “Nehru” title, the charismatic Prime Minister having popularized its style in public appearances during his tenure in government,” Time Magazine says when it listed the Achkan 7th of the ‘top ten political fashion statements’ in 2012.

It is believed that the first predecessors of Nehru jacket, collarless, buttonless embroidered coats widely used by stage artists, were evolved somewhere in 10th century. Frock coats in the Victorian era also has seemingly served as a model for the Nehru Jacket and Achkan, based on the Savile Row style of tailoring as a combination of Euro-centric idea of formal suits with Indian needs and tailoring.

“Achkans are a combination of what we have as Indian style kurtas and the Western concepts of suits,” Dr Vandana Bhandari, designer and faculty of the National Institute of Fashion Technology says.

With the Muslim invasion of India, as a fusion of Indian-Persian traditions, knee-length shirts having tunic collars namely Kurtas has also become popular in India, which later embroidered with decorative stuffs and precious stones. As the Mughals began to fade and British had entered the subcontinent,  These decorative kurtas gave birth to Achkans combining with British stitching styles, which became extremely popular during that time. And the Indian aristocracy embraced it.

The Mughals ruled over India between the 16 and the early 19 century. Babar, the founder of the empire, and his son Humayun, continued to wear clothing, which was mainly of Mongol and central Asian origin. Later, Akbar succeeded in integrating the Hindu and Muslim identity, and bringing about a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim styles, Bhandari observes.  Nehru had faced criticisms from many like writer Nirad Chowdhury and other right wing heads for adopting “Muslim style” by wearing Achkans and giving up “Indian traditions.”

Though it had already become popular in India and Southeast Asia by the late 50s, immediately after India got independence, Achkan and the Nehru Jacket had come to the fore in the West after Nehru had worn it for a photo shoot for the Vogue Magazine in 1964.

Further, it had become extremely popular in 1960s and early 1970s after the British rock band Beatles wore the Nehru Jacket in a concert held at Shea Stadium and later gain in 1967 the lead guitarist the Jack Bruce had also appeared in the same during their golden days. In the case of famous american Television artist Johnny Carson, it was said that he used to get commissions for wearing Nehru Jackets. Fame has crossed the bounds with Sean Connery in the film Dr. No., the antagonist Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films series, and Ernst Starvo Bofeld in Spectre chieftain, appeared in Nehru Achkans.

Nehru Jacket, which we know today had undergone alterations from its basic Achkin or Sherwani model over the years even during the lifetime of Nehru. The main difference between the popular Nehru Jacket and the original Achkan is the length. Achkans go below the knees whereas Nehru Jacket hardly reaches hips. It was only after 1940s the term ‘Nehru Jacket’ was started using widely. Till then it was known as ‘band gale ka coat’, which means ‘closed neck coat.’

The strangest part of the story is that, Nehru had never worn the popular, modified ones named after him, but always preferred the traditional models more akin to Ackhan or Sherwani.

Today, Achkan is a ceremonial dress mainly in North India and neighbouring Pakistan. According to a Delhi based fashion designer Nubair Kirmani, Achkans have become more popular for weddings, even more than sherwanis adding  that wearability is becoming a big priority for Indian men these days in selecting fabrics.

Achkans had changed over years, but in one respect it remains unchanged as it still confined to the territory of men. Its straight fit body shape and square shoulders have seemingly failed to flatter women folk.

Fashion’s trickledown effect is exemplified over the years through political leader’s influence on masses. Power dressing has an element of hero worship and emulating such tall leaders through fashion in garments, or hairstyle or eyewear or mustache have happened across the world. Nehru’s Bandhgala in sherwani style, along with a stylish rose instead pouchette did become a statement, Darlie Koshy, former director of National Institute of Design and author of Indian Design Edge observes.

A wardrobe quirk is a better way for celebs to stand out, and Nehru did a good job. A young girl living in same metropolis of Delhi says, “At the risk of sounding cheeky, I think his biggest contribution to this country was popularising the bandhgala.”