I’m embarrassed to admit that when I started writing this story, I knew next to nothing about Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. So too was I unfamiliar with the story of the Nehru jacket, or its extended family: the chapkan, kurta, achkan, and bandhgala. The path that Nehru’s jacket took to reach Swinging London is, to some extent, a classic example of appropriation. And yet, in another sense, I like to imagine it a triumph in the spirit of Swarāj—that is, the spirit of self-rule.
Jawaharlal Nehru played many roles: political heir to Gandhi, active anti-colonist, respected author, prisoner (those last two, simultaneously), and India’s very first prime minister. Nonetheless, when he passed away in 1964, after 17 years of service, one task remained unfinished: not once did Nehru don the jacket that would be known in his name.
In fairness, the Nehru jacket—or as it has been historically called, the bandhgala—bears a strong resemblance to the achkan coat so favoured by the late minister; the only apparent difference between the Nehru and its inspiration is a slightly shorter cut that ends at the waist rather than the knees. That said, the distinction as I’ll make here (following Ajmal Aramam’s take in Tehelka) is more social than superficial. The true departure of the Nehru from its predecessor has little to do with the jacket itself, and everything to do with those who modified, manufactured, and marketed it.
And yet: before we examine the Nehru, we must consider the achkan. And before we consider the achkan, we must reflect on the kurta. And before we reflect on the kurta, we must remember that in April of 1919, crowds across colonial India gathered to set piles upon piles of British-made clothing aflame.
The Swadeshi movement, described by Gandhi as the ‘soul of Swarāj’ (the soul of self-rule), called for the boycott (and burning) of foreign-made garments, in exchange for local styles and local production. Anti-colonial Indians replaced their British-made and British-styled threads with sarees and kurtas cut from homespun Indian khadi, spawning a new economy of household cloth production. Symbolically and economically, Indian styles were a protest and proclamation of freedom, down to the literal thread. And so it was that a young Jawaharlal Nehru traded in his western-style suits for khadi kurtas.
“The future beckons to us,” the soon-to-be prime minister proclaimed decades later, on the eve of Indian independence: “Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour?” As the nation-to-be rushed towards that fateful stroke of midnight, families throughout India gathered around radios to hear Nehru’s answer: “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India … to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.” Inspiring stuff. Tryst with Destiny, Nehru’s landmark parliamentary address, is widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest speeches. (It’s a brief and highly recommended read or listen.) Looking at black-and-white photographs from that night, I am struck by how Nehru’s figure cuts through his surroundings. By some quirk of the camera, his stark white outfit seems to glow, punching fiercely out from the darkness. The prime minister’s Gandhi sidecap reminds me of a captain out at sea, steering the maiden voyage of a new nation. Tonight, Nehru is clad no longer in a collarless kurta of homespun khadi, but a knee-length buttoned jacket complete with closed stand-up collar—the achkan.
The achkan, which I’ve mentioned in passing at the beginning of this article, claims its lineage from the Persian-Turkish chapkan and British frock, thus representing a subtle reintroduction of British styling into subcontinental fashion. ‘Achkan’ derives its name from the Sanskrit for ‘body protector’—the modern armour The was typical noble court attire of the time—a modern armour, and a certain shift from the humility of the common kurta. The northern Indian, Hindu-associated style became Nehru’s trademark outfit, and ultimately birthed the Nehru jacket, which I still have yet to properly address (I’m getting there, promise). Almost half a century after the prime minister’s passing, Time Magazine ranked Nehru’s achkans as one of the top ten political fashion statements of all time. Props.
I do want to acknowledge that while Nehru’s adoption of the achkan seems elitist at face value, the prime minister arguably made good progress on his promise of an India for all: his ministry enfranchised millions of underrepresented ethnic and religious minorities, and set the foundation for a secular, multi-party social democracy. Facing abroad, Nehru was a proponent of pan-Asian and Afro-Asian solidarity. His diplomacy and strong public image deserve the lion’s share of credit for the Nehru jacket’s popularity.
And so we finally arrive. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the achkan was chopped and rebranded as the Nehru jacket. What might serve as a better starting point is also the moment millions first noticed the style: on the stage of Shea Stadium in New York city in August of 1965, on the shoulders of a four-man band from Liverpool that had taken over the world.
That Shea Stadium set, attended by over 50,000 rabid fans, was the inaugural performance of the Beatles’ last tour as a group, and boasted the largest live audience they would ever perform for. (Audio equipment manufacturer Vox famously had to produce specially designed amplifiers for the event, which were nonetheless insufficient.) Up on that stage, on television screens and newspaper spreads across the world: four truncated descendants of Nehru’s achkan.
Paul, John, Ringo and George had grown keen on meditation techniques they encountered on a visit to India, returning from their trip with an affinity for Eastern spirituality and closed collars. The Beatles’ tastes at the time, in ideology and fashion alike, were embedded in a rapidly growing subculture out of Great Britain: mod. Mods (as in modernists), were stereotypically scooter-riding, fashion-obsessed social progressives, and a perfect market for the elegant Nehru jacket, offbeat as it was to western sensibilities.
Regardless, an explosion of mod’s global popularity in the mid-60’s carried styles like the Nehru to catalogues and magazines throughout the United States and United Kingdom. The Nehru was a symbol (to Western audiences) of foreignness, spirituality, intellectualism, nonviolence, and of course, Nehru himself. The prime minister’s anti-colonial history, reputable authorship, and political positioning as a humanist and social democrat made him extremely popular abroad, especially among the politically aligned mods.
I do wonder why the Nehru jacket drew more from the bandhgala than the knee-length style that was actually worn by the prime minister. I suppose the pictures of Nehru as he appeared to the west, on television and in newspapers, was often waist-up—an incomplete image. Or perhaps the stand-up collar represented the limit to which Western fashion was willing to suspend itself. Was a fully accurate achkan a little too exotic for the mods?
Beyond the changes in design, the bandhgala’s makeover into the Nehru signalled a shift in manufacturing—the jackets worn by most mods in the United States and Great Britain would have been cut from cloth that couldn’t be much further from homespun Indian khadi. The Indian tailors that produced Nehru’s achkans may have benefitted from the burst of Nehrumania, but it was surely industry in the west that reaped the returns. American tailors like New-York based Grossman Clothing, who put up a full-page ad dedicated to Nehru suits featuring Sammy Davis Jr. Throughout the decade, the Nehru’s closed collar made appearances on the necks of the Who, Dr. No (in the James Bond film of the same name), and even the Dr. Who villain the master. (If only there were also a Nehru-toting band called the No—we’d have every permutation!)
With time, the Nehru and the mods that wore it drifted out of fashion. By the 70’s, the subculture that championed the achkan had evolved into something new. In recent years, even Nehru himself has been somewhat forgotten, thanks to active efforts to understate him from certain groups in India. Today, you’re about as unlikely to see a bandhgala outside of the South Asian community as you are to find a tangzhuang or kimono.
And so it was that suits were burned for kurtas, and kurtas replaced with achkans, and achkans cropped into Nehru jackets. For me, this story raises questions about the nature of names and their audiences, and the role industry plays in fashion as freedom. It’s a reminder of that what we wear, whether or not we realise, means something. I like to think of the Nehru jacket, even if not a perfect model of cultural exchange, as a step towards Swarāj—even if only for a moment in sartorial history.