Independence Day special feature: Prominent Indian leaders and their dressing in the decades that have passed since Independence.


With Independence Day round the corner, we take a moment to rewind to the decades that have passed since the time India gained Independence to study the dressing and styling of some of our prominent leaders. We start with our first Prime Minister Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru, whose sartorial choices left such a deep impact in the world of fashion that he has a vest like jacket (the famous Nehru Jacket) and a collar (the Nehru collar) named after him. A man who took dressing very seriously, he loved wearing Western Suits but in the run up to Independence his styling changed dramatically in favour of simple clothing stitched from hand spun ‘Khadi’. Khadi was the symbol of India’s struggle for Independence and many a key political figures adopted the fabric for their everyday clothing. Post independence however, once the British had left Indian soil, Shri. Nehru favoured the buttoned down, full sleeve, Nehru collared ‘Achkan’ and the ‘Sherwani’. Many a time there would be a rose gently tucked into the buttonhole of his Achkan. The Achkan, to give you a background had been patronised by Royalty in India way before we attained Independence. It was a favoured men’s garment which replaced the ‘full skirted voluminous Jamas and Angrakhas’ seen during the Mughal times. It is also important to note that Shri. Nehru favoured dressing in somber colours such as black, white, cream and grey which we see common with a lot of leaders in the current day. He also favoured Bamboo fabric; which grew quite unpopular in the decades that followed but in recent years seems to have regained its popularity thanks to the comfort it offers and versatility. 


When one thinks of leaders in the past and dressing, it is hard to miss the iconic and powerful Smt. Indira Gandhi. I doubt anybody could have pulled off the connect between fashion and politics better than her. She used her dressing in crisply pressed, hand starched Khadi saris draped over her sturdy torso as a powerful medium to send across a message. When she traveled international, she continued to wear handwoven saris teamed with a trench coat as a modern spin to her heritage; which she proudly carried off. There are several instances where we find her with her sari pallu draped over her head and left shoulder; something a lot of current day women politicians including her daughter in law and grand daughter carry off. Grand occasions found her draped in understated chic silk saris and the Kanchipuram silk sari from Tamil Nadu is said to have been a favourite of hers.

The back necklines of her blouses went as high up as her nape and the sleeves ran down all the way till her elbows. In fact there was never a peek show moment and some of the most powerful women politicians of the country in modern times have also been found to dress the same. 

We never see her wearing loud chunky jewellery and it is said that she donated most of the jewellery she owned during to the National Defence Fund in 1962. 


Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was most often spotted donning a crisp white handwoven starched dhoti, a crisp white kurta and a khadi cream coloured waist coat. The white hat was a must though and a lot of his contemporaries were also spotted donning them. At times the kurta and waist coat were replaced with a knee length full sleeved formal bandhgala jacket. Footwear was mostly formal black shoes. 


In the decades that passed, the white muslin kurta pyjama with or without a contrast sleeveless button down waist coat thrown over dominated wardrobes of a majority of policy makers in India. It was probably meant to signify simplicity and proximity to what common man could afford to dress himself up in. 


The Safari suit was once worn by politicians but is now worn mostly by their bodyguards. The black Achkan and white close cut pants have made way for the more ample cut Bandhgala (which we see our current Prime Minister sporting when he travels International). The long sleeved Nehru Jacket has made way for the short sleeved version of itself; popularly dubbed the ‘Modi Jacket’ or the waist coat thanks to the number of times we see our current Prime Minister sporting it. 

Today most male parliamentarians wear some variation of the kurta- pyjama and a handful of those from the south make it a point to wear the regional veshti. Dr. Ambedkar’s suits were intended to symbolise modernity and Dalit empowerment but in the context of everyday convenience and the prevailing weather conditions in the subcontinent, even that has been replaced with more convenient options. 


Women parliamentarians such as Sushma Swaraj have been spotted donning exquisite saris teamed with matching sleeveless jackets (with pockets) and the youthful Vasundhara Raje Scindia is often seen draped in saris of bright hues. The president of the Indian National Congress, Smt. Sonia Gandhi is seen most often in sober handwoven saris (woven by master artisans from across the country) teamed with formal full sleeve jackets in the winter months and/ or sleeveless jackets in the summer months. While white and cream coloured hues remain popular across men and women parliamentarians, a lot of the current breed can also be seen experimenting with colour. Smt. Smriti Irani at the helm of the Ministry of Textiles is not only a patron of the exquisite textiles this country produces but a walking talking advocate - hand printed, hand woven, naturally dyed and all of that. 

While we are aware Indian hand looms faced a downfall in the years that cheap mill made fabric from Britain flooded our markets, In recent years a good many of India’s globally acclaimed fashion and textile designers have focused on adopting entire villages comprising skilled weaving / printing and embroidery communities. Their focus on creating sustainable livelihoods for these craftsmen and their families and at the same time making products that a modern day audience finds desirable drives them to spend months on end with these communities doing in-depth research and developing fabrics. These museum worthy textiles then find their way to prestigious runways and outlets across the globe and have been gaining popularity on a global scale. 


On a closing note, we don’t force you but we urge you to lookout for sustainably developed local textiles and attempt to source locally. While the grass definitely seems greener on the other side, let’s do what we can to keep our indigenous handlooms and handicrafts alive. 

Author: #Sneha Sundareshan

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