Our most enduring image of Jawaharlal Nehru is of him dressed in a long bandhgala jacket. There were occasions when he wore the half-sleeve jacket, perhaps, in the summers, but on his trips abroad, it was always the bandhgala coat. Nehru, however, had never set out to be a style icon. He simply kept up a look that was an epitome of Indian chic, sophistication, and, above all, comfortable for the culture that he was a part of and the climate of the land we live in.
Exploring the journey of the bandhgala and its inclusion in the hall of fame of fashion as the Nehru jacket, is an interesting lore. The “prince coat” as it was known before Nehru’s legacy, has evolved from its patriarch, the angarkha. Inspired by Persian culture, angarkha became a part of the wardrobe for many royal states. With British imposition, however, the need to formalise this style found expression in a more tapered version — the achkan. Worn with customised heirloom buttons and state jewellery, the achkan became the preferred formal attire of the nobility, to be worn at formal functions, aristocratic gatherings, and, most importantly, in the royal courts. The states that leaned towards the Mughal ethos refrained from this adaptation and embraced a modified version, namely the sherwani. Hence, the two looks, the achkan and sherwani, became a part of two separate universes, visually and culturally, segregating the two philosophies, forever.
Over time, the idea of wearing an achkan as a formal wear was replaced, thanks to British sartorial influences. Western jackets or suits gained more traction during leisure events or gatherings because of its comfort. The successor — bandhgala — was more comfortable and easily manageable; it became universally acceptable as it synthesised charmingly with the British code of clothing, while maintaining its Indian charm. Worn by aristocratic polo players, maharajas and young princes of various states at social gatherings around the world, the bandhgala adopted a more fashionable version soon that came to be christened as the “prince coat”.
Still struggling to coin a name for this remarkable outfit, people finally found in Nehru an apt model. His style was extraordinary, especially his trademark cap, the rose and the pristine jacket worn with slim pants. After India’s Independence, as his visibility as the country’s first Prime Minister became more prominent across the globe, it seemed only appropriate to name the bandhgala — both the jacket and the waistcoat — after Nehru (Nowadays, retailers often choose to associate him with their new collections of waistcoats only and not the full-length bandhgala, for reasons best known to them).The Nehru jacket had arrived on the global scene, with chock-full of recognition as an iconic Indian silhouette.
After Nehru, it was the turn of the politicians to embrace the Nehru jacket. Soon, it had entered the common man’s lexicon too. The entry of polyester in ’60s-’70s enabled every man to own a bandhgala. From adopting it as uniform in boarding schools such as Mayo College, to creative adaptations by young designers, the Nehru jacket made an impact on every aesthete. However, to maintain its originality, our label, Raghavendra Rathore, for which the bandhgala is a trademark product, set a mandate to preserve the original patterns by copyrighting them and ensuring that the heritage of the classic pattern is preserved and that we hold on to a piece of history.
What really defines the ultimate Nehru-style bandhgala? There are a few simple rules: it must be handmade, the cut and the fit must be prepared according to the client’s body to mould the shape of the chest as was the original pattern, and lastly, the technique of factoring comfort between the shoulders and the chest area must be complied. This is the key that gives the jacket its tenacity and the distinctly masculine look, both characteristics that India’s first prime minister had aplenty.
Raghavendra Rathore is a fashion designer.