The style that came to be known in the Western World as the Nehru jacket came to the Boomer Generation in variety of ways. The fashion item itself had its origins in Asia thousands of years ago. Most of Asian cultures had a variation on the straight, thigh-length jacket with a collarless neckline. The jacket, so called because it was worn over a shirt, was generally reserved for the noble class or used as ceremonial garb.
The garment we knew as the “Nehru jacket” was so named after India’s political activist and first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). As a constant reminder of his objection to British rule, he wore a traditional coat that resembled the styles of Achkan, Sherwani or Bandhgala designs that spoke of Indian culture in the years immediately before and after India gained its independence in the 1940s.
The U.S. got its first-hand look at Nehru’s mode of dress in 1962. China had just acted aggressively by moving troops into northern India, alarming world leaders in the process. In an effort to sway Nehru into joining the fight against Communism, President Kennedy invited him to visit the White House. A pacifist at heart like his co-activist friend Gandhi, Nehru called China “India’s brother.” Shortly thereafter China withdrew its troops. Photos of the President and the First Lady with the Prime Minister and his wife fascinated fashionistas in Britain and the U.S.
One of the earliest commonly-viewed influences of the style turned up in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). The title character (played by Joseph Wiseman) wore a Mandarin collar jacket that was probably more Chinese-influenced than Indian. As the villain in the film, he was the antithesis of India’s Prime Minister.
A burgeoning counterculture fashion industry and a growing number of disaffected youth began looking to the East for guidance, after rejecting “Western values” as they saw them. They coalesced when the Beatles began wearing collarless suits in the early 1960s; the Beatles had a huge influence on the elevation of the Nehru jacket, but not in the main form Mandarin collar we recall from the era. Rather, British designers used the style as inspiration for collarless suit jackets. Before the Beatles, it was common for rock ‘n roll band members to wear business suits and ties. The Beatles were among the first to straddle the line between respectable and irreverent by wearing collarless suit jackets.
Timothy Leary wore a collarless Asian-style garment in the days of his Hippie influence.
In 1966 the Beatles visited India to study meditation. By the time they returned to Britain, Eastern philosophy and style had permeated the counterculture, especially the Hippies. British designers, keen on expanding the new Age of Fashion, seized the moment and produced variations of their own on a jacket they now labelled as “Nehru,” both to honor the pacifist man and give a Western name to an Asian style. Nonetheless, even though there are photos of John and George wearing Indian-style Nehru jackets around the time of their India trip, it is worth noting that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967), the first released after their trip, does not depict the Fab Four wearing Nehru jackets. Rather, they are dressed in military-style band uniforms that do have a collarless neckline.
Fashion followers say the popularity of the jacket, which had been on the rise up to the Summer of Love in 1967, took a nosedive after celebrities such as Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Namath began wearing the style on a regular basis, often paired with a turtleneck and beads or a medallion necklace. By that point — around 1968 — jackets, vests, shirts and blouses sporting the Nehru collar were available across the consumer spectrum for men, women and children. The Nehru was doomed to be a fashion fad in the Western world, though it still turns up as hip wear for some popular musicians.
And that is where Mister Boomer’s awareness entered. On a family trip to New York City in 1967, Brother Boomer slipped into a shop in Greenwich Village and emerged with the most beautiful Nehru jacket Mister B has seen to this day. It was jet black with a gold brocade paisley design that was all at once modern and timeless, classy and fashion-forward. When the family returned home, Mister Boomer kept an eye out for a similar garment for himself. The closest he came was a short-sleeve shirt that sported a Nehru collar. It was blue with a gold paisley pattern, but paled in comparison to the masterful garment his brother had procured. Mister Boomer did not get invited to many parties, but does recall that in his earliest high school days, he wore his short-sleeve Nehru to one. Needless to say, he was the only one dressed in that style.
How about it, boomers? Did you wear Nehru-style clothing? If so, was it a fashion statement or a cultural statement?