Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, served from 1947 to his death in 1964. He was a good friend of Ghandi, saw his country through the first difficult years of independence from the British, and also tried hard to eliminate the Indian caste system, which assumes that if you are born into poverty, it must be because you’re a horrible person who did horrible things in a previous life.
Obviously, he was a fine leader who did a lot for his country. However, he is more famous for lending his name to an article of clothing that is uniquely 60’s in its appearance.
The Nehru jacket appeared in the mid 1960’s. Its mod look went perfectly with Twiggy, paisley prints, and sitar music. Soon, it was seen on none other than the Beatles themselves, vaulting its popularity. Dr. No was seen wearing one in Sean Connery’s first Bond movie. Other Bond films released in that decade with Nehrus, or close Mao lookalikes, were Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice. In fact, Bond villains have continued to sport them right up to recent releases.
Arte Johnson wore a Nehru at the weekly Laugh-In cocktail party. So did Sammy Davis Jr. (he owned over 200 of them), Mike Love, Johnny Carson, and lots more hipsters. Even baseball player Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson sported one on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The funny thing about the Nehru is that it has never completely disappeared. Steven Seagal is known to have one on. Of course, Dr. Evil and Mini-Me are adorned with their immaculate Nehrus in the Austin Powers movie series. The look is really sort of timeless, an alternative to a suit and tie that was a modern one from the start, and continues to look strangely in style. Contrast that with, say, a pair of red-and-white striped polyester bell bottoms.
The jacket itself: a band collared, hip-length closely-fitting coat, first appeared in India in the early 1940’s. It took a while to catch on in the US, but by 1968 was seen all over TV, magazines, and movie screens. Chairman Mao lent his name to the similar Mao jacket, which basically looks like something a communist leader would wear. Perhaps if the Chinese leader would have been svelte like Nehru himself, the Mao look might have proven more ageless.
So here’s to the Nehru jacket: It’s definitely a blast from our past, but, like us, refuses to go away quietly.