Most suit jackets or sportscoats follow the same basic cut principals that we have known for decades. Sadly, today it is difficult to find sportscoat or classic garments that feature interesting details, which is why we introduced you to the Norfolk jacket and Half-Norfolk jacket recently. Today, we’d like to continue this series and present to you the Nehru jacket, which is often falsely referred to as the Mao jacket or suit, outlining the history, styles and influences on garments we wear quite frequently in the Western hemisphere. The Gentleman’s Gazette reader Arsch Sharma from Kullu in India contributed this piece.
The Nehru Jacket
Unlike in the western hemisphere, the Nehru Jacket is quite popular in Southeast Asia, especially in India and neighboring countries. It is named after Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an important part of the Indian independence movement, and became the first Prime Minister of India. The feature that distinguishes this jacket from a normal suit jacket is its mandarin collar, which was originally a part of court dress in northern India. This collar is a short ( 1-2″ / stand-2-5 cm) stand-up collar that is not turned down and does not feature a lapel.
It is named after the mandarines in Imperial China but at the same time it combines features of traditional Indian menswear with British tailoring quite successfully, and probably that is why it became a staple in every Indian man’s wardrobe during and after the Raj. Although, rarely seen in the Americas and Europe on civilian clothes, the mandarin collar is popular with military attire.
Key features of the Nehru jacket
The Nehru jacket is not very different from a suit jacket. Other than the mandarin collar, this jacket resembles the suit jacket very closely. It can have single or double vents, and its collar is fastened with the help of a hook, which gives a clean look to the ensemble. This jacket is mostly worn with matching trousers, but it can also be paired with odd trousers. As the jacket does not display any shirt (except for the cuffs and a bit of collar), therefore the correct shirt to wear with it would be a collarless shirt.
However, people wear turndown collar shirts with it as well. In my opinion, the fold of the turndown collar makes the closed neck of the jacket look ‘stuffed’, and it ruins the clarity of this ensemble.
A glimpse into the life of Pundit Nehru
Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14th November 1889 in Allahabad, which was then situated in the United Provinces of undivided India. It was a time when the British Raj was in its Golden era. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a barrister who was quite well to do, as he had inherited wealth and property from his forefathers. It is said that before joining the independence movement, he used to dress himself in western fashion, and followed western culture. It was after he became a part of the nationalist movement that he adopted the Indian way of living. He belonged to the Kashmiri Pandit community and he served twice as the President of the Indian National Congress. Pandit Nehru’s childhood, in his own words was ‘sheltered and uneventful’. Most of his childhood was spent in ‘Anand Bhavan’, which was a large, splendid estate. He was educated by private tutors, and in 1905, he joined Harrow, a leading school in England. He then went to the Trinity college, Cambridge, where he completed his graduation in natural sciences. Pandit Nehru then went on to study Law in the Inns of Court School of Law (Inner Temple), London. He passed his bar examinations in 1912, and was admitted to the English bar. He returned to India in 1912, and joined the Allahabad High Court as a barrister. However, his interest in Indian politics, and struggle for freedom gave his career a new direction. He was very close to M.K. Gandhi, who played central role in the freedom movement. When India earned its independence in 1947, he became the first Prime Minister of the country. He is also called the ‘Architect of India’, which refers to his importance in the development of the nation after 1947. He passed away on 27th May, 1964.
History of the garment
It is very hard to accurately mention the time when the original ancestor of the Nehru jacket jacket came into existence. India was invaded several times by foreign intruders, and each intrusion had a cultural impact on the Indian lifestyle. However, it can be believed that the first garment that resembled the Nehru jacket evolved sometime around the 10th century. These garments were not jackets; instead, they were worn as shirts under some other sorts of full length, embroided coats. However, we shall concentrate only on the shirts which gave rise to the forefather of the Nehru jacket. These shirts were collarless and buttonless, and were fastened with the help of strings or threads attached to them, much like the frog enclosures that can be seen on a smoking jacket. These garments had an extra layer of fabric that overlapped in the front, like a double breasted jacket.
After the Muslim rulers came to India, long shirts with tunic collars appeared. These knee length shirts resembled modern nightshirts, and were called ‘Kurta’. Kurtas were stitched quite loose, since they were meant to be comfortable. They were fastened with decorative studs, that often had an ornamental chain connecting them. They were worn under waistcoats or full length coats, which were embroided with pure gold or silver thread along with precious gemstones like emeralds, pearls, rubies, diamonds, topaz, sapphires and so on. Because of the Indian climate, these shirts were mostly made from cotton or fine silk. It is interesting to note that kurtas are still worn in India. The reason that they are worn to this day is perhaps their simplicity and comfort. With the temperatures rising above 40°C / 104°F in some parts of the country, Indian summers make it very uncomfortable to put on even a single layer of cloth over your shirt. This was the major factor that gave rise to the decorative kurta.
Embroided kurtas emerged, and became very popular. These new decorative ‘Achkans’ (as they were called) saw a sky rocketing rise in popularity because of their practicality. Achkans too, like kurtas are worn in India even today, but their appearance is limited to festive events that occur during the summers. It is well known that India was a British colony, and the British too, left their impact on Indian clothing.
Frock coats were extremely popular in the Victorian era, and they served as a model for what became the direct predecessor of the Nehru jacket – the ‘Sherwani’. It married the ethnicity of the achkan with the formality of the frock coat. The sherwani was cut closer to the body, had a suppressed waist and a flared skirt, probably inspired by the Savile Row style of tailoring. The cuffs of this garment were complete with buttonholes and buttons, much like you would see on a modern day suit jacket. Unlike the achkan, sherwanis were undecorated and simple.
They were worn over kurtas and mostly white pyjamas; therefore, this dress was simple, comfortable and elegant. The Indian aristocracy adopted this style, and it became a staple in every Indian gentleman’s wardrobe. Even today, the sherwanis are associated with the aristocratic class in India and Pakistan. Nehru himself was a great fan of sherwanis. He liked wearing a red rose buttonhole on his sherwani that became his signature, and which is remembered to this day.
It wasn’t until the 1940s, that the Nehru jacket emerged . It was not originally called Nehru jacket, in fact it was known as ‘band gale ka coat’, which literally translates into ‘closed neck coat.’ It was a less formal alternative to the sherwani, and like its predecessor, it too found a place in the Indian man’s wardrobe. Ironically, Nehru never wore the Nehru jacket himself, he continued wearing sherwanis. It was perhaps due to the similarity between the two garments that brought the term Nehru jacket into existence.
Material for the Nehru jacket
Every material fit to make a western style suit is fit to tailor a Nehru jacket. Depending on the climate, these fabrics range from hand spun cotton to heavy merino tweeds. In the northern Himalayan region, it is very easy to spot people in Nehru jackets made from merino wool or cashmere, however, such fabrics are almost useless for people living in the hot and humid Indian plains. The khadi version of this jacket is more popular in warmer regions. ‘Khadi’ is a term referring to hand spun cotton, which was made popular by Mahatma Gandhi during the struggle for Indian independence. This cloth could be produced in Indian homes easily, as most of the Indian economy depended on agriculture, and cotton was an important cash crop. It was something that was done by Gandhi to make Indians self reliant. Even today, khadi is worn by many people in India. Khadi is not very luxurious, but it is very breathable and light. It reflects the Gandhian thought of ‘simple living and high thinking’.
Nehru jacket and the West
The Nehru jacket was made quite popular in the west during the late 1960s and the early 1970s by the Beatles. Sean Connery wore it as James Bond in Dr. No it.
The French actor, Louis Jourdan, who played the villain role of Kamal Khan in the 007 film, Octopussy has donned this jacket in the movie. Several other people in the west have worn this jacket, which have made it well known in Europe and America.
The Nehru Jacket Today
As I mentioned earlier, the Nehru jacket is still a very popular alternative to a traditional western style suit in India. There was a decline in its popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, which was the era of 6X1 double breasted jackets, but now, with numerous designers lending their perspective to this dynamic garment, it has made a fantastic comeback.
The Mao suit
Some also refer to the Nehru jacket as the Mao jacket of Mao suit but unlike the Nehru jacket, it features a turndown collar and four flapped patch pockets yielding a different look. Therefore it is not correct to use these terms interchangeably. Furthermore, the term Mao suit is exclusively used in western world whereas in China it is referred to as Zhongshan-suit (named after China’s first president Sun Yat Sen also known as Sun Zhongshan). It is based on Japanese cadet uniform and was created to contrast the traditional Chinese Qing dynasty Manchurian official’s (Mandarin’s) garments which featured a turn-up collar.
What do you think of the Nehru jacket? Have you ever worn or owned one?