The Nehru jacket worn by men in the United Kingdom, United States, and Europe differs from the upper-body garments worn by Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first Prime Minister (1947–1964), after whom the Western garment is named. The Nehru jacket is similar to a Western man's tailored suit jacket, but with a difference. The collar and lapels are replaced by a front-button closure rising to a high, round neckline surmounted by a narrow stand-up collar. The stand-up collar may be cut with a slight curve to set it into a well-cut neckline, evidencing the transformative effect of Western tailoring on the Indian men's collar from which it is derived. When popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Nehru jacket was paired with trousers and one of several choices for shirts—turtleneck, mock turtleneck, or tunic. The design of the jacket facilitated the display of bead necklaces, a new element in the dress of male youth in that period.
The eponymous upper-body garments worn by Nehru during his public life are three in number: a kurta (tunic), and worn over it a bundi (vest) in summer or an achkan in winter, variously also called jama in Indian languages, and in Colonial English, Pharsi-fashion coat, or long coat (Ghurye 1996, pp. 168, 176, 188). Each of the three sports a stand-up collar atop a front-button closure, though kurta collars are optional.
In most other respects Nehru's Indian garments differed significantly from the Nehru jacket of Western men's fashion that they inspired. The kurta is a cotton or silk shirt with a broad flowing A-line silhouette, side slits, uniquely Indian inseam side pockets, inset long sleeves, stand-up collar, and a front-buttoned placket that reaches down to the wearer's lower chest. Nehru wore his kurta at below-knee length, ensembling it with churidar payjama—a bias cut, drawstring waist pant cut narrowly over the leg from knee down to ankle, with additional length added to the garment so that the fabric forms gathers at the ankle, mimicking the narrow churi glass bracelets that Indian women wear on their wrists. The churidar payjama is the ancestor of jodhpur riding pants.
Nehru's Indian bundi is a front-buttoned, high hip-length sleeveless vest with stand-up collar and three front pockets-two below and one above. It is made from cotton,
silk, or wool khadi (homespun) fabrics. Nehru wore his bundi with a knee-length kurta and churidar payjamas.
Nehru's long coat extends below the knee, and has a front opening down through the hem but closed with buttons only from neck to waist; stand-up collar; and inset long sleeves with straight hem at the top of the hand. Unlike the aristocrats of pre-Nationalist Indian society, Nehru made his long coats from khadi fabrics, abstaining from the luxurious silk and gold brocades (kinkhabs) from which the Indian nobility usually made theirs. The long coat is worn with a kurta and churidar payjamas, with all its buttons closed, presenting a very finished look.
The manner in which the Western men's garment gave up its lapels and took on the stand-up collar and "Nehru jacket" name is a history of global dimensions in fashion and politics that begins before Nehru was born. Both the long coat and the kurta gained their style of inset sleeves and the kurta gained its front-button placket under European and British colonial influence. Long coats also became more tailored under the British, both during the early colonial era and, after a hiatus of rejection of western dress influence during the independence struggle, as the public officials of the new nation took their places on the global political stage.
Nehru came into public consciousness in Britain from the early decades of the twentieth century during India's long political struggle. In the United States, popular attention focused on Nehru from the mid-twentieth century, when in 1962 China attacked newly independent India. U.S. leaders courted Nehru and Pakistani leaders as allies against the spread of communism. Nehru visited Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy in 1949, 1956, and 1961, respectively. Jacqueline Kennedy visited Nehru in 1962. As Americans watched the first lady's dress, they also learned what Nehru wore.
Experimentation with and rejection of suit dressing for men (Bennett-England 1967) was occurring in Western fashion during this same political period. Cinema idols, such as Marlon Brando, appearing in T-shirts and black leather jackets, popularized nonsuit dressing and valorized the classes of men who could ill afford the expense of suit dressing. Inspired by advances in space travel, Pierre Cardin offered his Space Age line in 1964. The most influential piece was his collarless, lapel-free suit jacket (McDowell 1997, pp.144–145). It buttoned all the way up the front ending in an unadorned round neckline that revealed the collar of a dress shirt. Though not widely accepted, Cardin's garment found favor with the Beatles and other early 1960s British rock groups who wished to remain respectable through suit dressing, but wanted to cut an independent image. While collarless suits gained only limited popularity, Cardin's rejection of vestigial aspects of men's dress encouraged further experimentation with the suit jacket, such as the use of innovative fabrics like denim and velvet, or bright colors and prints for men's suits. A general narrowing of the entire men's suit—leg, torso, sleeve, lapel, and its accompanying necktie—also occurred. This fashion threatened to make parts of the suit disappear. It simultaneously made the suit even more uncomfortable to wear. Formal dressing in tunics à la Yves Saint Laurent and others provided nonsuit alternatives for formal male attire. After the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, stand-up collar military uniforms as featured on the album cover—with or without gold braid—as well as second hand navy pea jackets (double-breasted with lapels) became an additional popular alternative to suit dressing for youth. Within this climate of broad attack on and experimentation with suit dressing, a new type of designer arose in Britain to serve the youth who were its primary proponents in dress practice. These British boutique designers offered innovative clothing in successions of quick fads popular among youth.
The Nehru jacket appeared as one of these brief fads after George Harrison and the Beatles went to India in 1966 to learn meditation and music. They brought into fashion not only Ravi Shankar's sitar music and incense, but also paisley prints, bead necklaces (originally Indian meditation beads) for both men and women, Kolhapuri sandals, white-on-white Lucknow Chikan embroidered cotton kurtas, and the stand-up collar of the Nehru jacket. Whether worn on a vest or jacket, the stand-up collar joined in the general experimentation with men's suit dressing. Marly (1985, p. 134) reports Simpson's of the United Kingdom offered a velvet lapel-free suit with Indian style stand-up collar in anticipation of a popular market they forecast with the opening of the movie The Guru, in 1969.
American youth were not as cognizant as British youth of Nehru and India, but they were very involved in British popular music. The Nehru jacket crossed the Atlantic and was briefly worn in the United States, too. Several entertainers, including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr., made it a regular part of their wardrobe. However, military-style stand-up collar jackets were also redesigned and worn by youth in this period. Not all stand-up collar jackets from this period strictly trace their origins back to India via Nehru or the Beatles.
Though considered a short-lived fad on both sides of the Atlantic among sectors of Western society deriving from European roots, the Nehru jacket has achieved classic status in those sectors of global society—especially British Commonwealth countries—with significant Indian diasporas. Their tuxedo-rental agencies now routinely provide Nehru jackets with matching suit trousers as one of their options for formal attire. Conversely, the several garments that Nehru wore remain in fashion among urban upper- and upper-middle classes in India for bridal and special occasion wear. The humbler versions of these garments also continue in use in the regions of rural India whence they originated.
Bennett-England, Rodney Charles. Dress Optional: The Revolution in Menswear. London: Peter Owen, 1967.
Ghurye, G. S. Indian Costume. 2nd ed. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1966.
Marly, Diana de. Fashions for Men: An Illustrated History. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985.
McDowell, Colin. The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1997.