Sartorial elegance has been a matter of pride for many politicians in India. Simple yet elegant dresses have been the norm. A few dresses have gone on to grace the international stage as well. Take the Nehru jacket, for example. It was popular in the international fashion circuit in the late 1960s and the early 70s, being made so by the Beatles. The Nehru jacket married the ethnicity of the Indian kurta, or achkan with the formality of the Victorian frock coat.
It was in the political turbulence of the 1940s, when the independence movement gathered steam to give the British the final push, that the Nehru jacket emerged. Then it was called ‘bandh gale ka coat’, or ‘closed-neck coat.’ It was a less formal alternative to the sherwani, and like its predecessor, it too became popular with men, and particularly, men of politics, all over the country. 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.
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The Nehru jacket is extremely popular among politicians and ministers even today. Similarly the Gandhi cap (Gandhi topi in Hindi). And like Nehru jacket, it also owes its popularity to the independence movement. Such caps have been worn by people in places in India throughout history. However, it was Mahatma Gandhi who popularised it during the independence movement and hence the name. It actually formed part of the uniform which Gandhi, as a non-white political prisoner, wore during the South African-Indian passive resistance struggle from 1907 to 1914. He later used it when, on his return to India, he further developed his technique of non-violent civil disobedience. The khadi Gandhi cap became the symbol of resistance to British rule in India.
Mahatma Gandhi wearing the Gandhi cap
Some of the current political leaders are also known for sartorial elegance. Perhaps the best example is Narendra Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He is known for his carefully cut clothes. The credit goes to the Rs 150-crore Ahmedabad-based clothing retail chain, Jade Blue, that has been dressing the Gujarat chief minister for two decades now.
Now the brothers Bipin and Jitendra Chauhan-owned chain has cashed in on the bespoke kurtas’ popularity to create the brand, ‘Modi kurta’, the name being approved by the chief minister himself. The brand is also being sold overseas due to a huge demand coming from Gujarati pockets in the UK, the US and East Africa. In India, it is available at Jade Blue’s stores in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
Modi kurtas are made in two fabrics – linen-polyester and linen-cotton – in basically two designs – half-sleeved, with buttoned up standing collar and fine net detailing on the shoulder seam; and full-sleeved, with buttoned cuffs, both identified with Modi. According to the brothers, just like the Nehru jacket, Modi kurta has become a phenomenon. It can easily be said that in current politics, Narendra Modi is the guru of fashion.
The Chauhans know Modi well as their association with him dates back to the 1990s when he preferred half-sleeved poly-khadi kurtas in white because they were easy to iron. Over the years, Modi's dress sense evolved in keeping with the changing times. From poly-khadi, his wardrobe now includes kurtas in khadi silk, matka silk and linen. Modi's favourite colours are white, off-white, light pink, saffron, pistachio and other earthy shades.
The Khadi kurtas displayed on mannequins
In this election season, selling of political merchandise has come of age. And if one looks at sales figures of merchandise related to political leaders, Narendra Modi beats others by a mile – for everything, including the kurtas. For example, for Hyderabad-based online merchandise retailer, Bluegape.com, over 80% of political merchandise sold is related to NaMo, as Modi is often referred to in election campaigns.
Fashion merchandise, in general, has hit a new high this time, sold mostly online. Snapdeal, that began selling NaMo brand of phones, has now started offering merchandise for followers of the Aam Aadmi Party. Their range includes wall clocks and covers for phones and tablets. The platform has seen sales of political merchandise rise four-fold since last month, with most merchandise getting sold in tier-II and tier-III cities. The Congress is also very much in the game, with various goods selling with pictures of Rahul Gandhi or the logo of the party.
It all began when Tradus started retailing Aam Aadmi jhadus (brooms) for Rs 5 each that became popular instantly and the company saw almost 2,000 brooms flying off within two hours. Over three days, after the win of AAP in Delhi, about 6,000 brooms got sold on the platform. Even bulk orders for T-shirts, caps and other such accessories are being received from individuals as gift to their party members.
The Lok Sabha elections round the corner is being looked at by several online retailers as an opportunity to cash on, and they are offering a wide variety of political merchandise. From personal accessories, home decor to utility items, branded with images and logos of leading political parties, all sorts of merchandise are available at the online retailers.
Some of the hit merchandise at Bluegape - NaMo mug, AAP cushion cover, Rahul Gandhi wall clock
The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken simplicity in elegance to a different level. Her tant cotton sarees are sourced from the weavers of the famous saree-weavng centre of Dhaniakhali in Hoogly district. They are white or cream, with coloured borders. Not for her is the razzle-dazzle of colours; rather her dresses present a picture of a simple, honest, accessible people’s person.
The Mamata Banerjee in tant saree - simply elegant!
Fashion designers are also not far behind in their involvement. Sound bites have come thick and fast as far as suggestions go. Many have expressed their desires to dress up politicians of their choice.
Mona Lamba and Pali Sachdev, the famous designer duo from Kolkata better known as MonaPali, have gone a step ahead and thrown open their new saree collection, inspired by famous politicians and political parties. The line is named 'Politics and Aam Aadmi' (it must be mentioned that ‘Aam Aadmi’ here does not reflect the political party, but rather, the common people). It was unveiled at the Bengal Fashion Week in Kolkata last February.
There's one for Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, one with a lotus motif for Narendra Modi's supporters, one with a broom motif for Arvind Kejriwal's AAP and even Jayalalithaa has a saree dedicated to her bearing the AIADMK symbol.
"Many politicians do make fashion statements. Jawaharlal Nehru had his coat with a rose in his pocket; we have our Mamata di who wears a white cotton sari with a self-coloured border which is understated yet elegant. If we go down south, we have Jayalalithaa ji who often wears a cloak over her sari, which also makes quite a fashion statement," said Pali Sachdev in an interview.
Sarees from the MonaPali collection
Model Nikita Luther, who walked the ramp in the latest MonaPali creations, said, “Every politician has his or her own style. Our Chief Minister Mamata di is also very fashionable – simplicity is her style and I think even she can revamp her wardrobe a bit with help from the designers," she said.
Models displaying MonaPali creations
The new age of fashion
"When we think of politics, we only think of khadi, caps and coats. So with election fever on, we thought let's design some clothes which have glamour and beauty and are inspired from election symbols and colours of parties," said Mona Lamba.
"Appearances are important these days and when you think of appearance, your apparel is an important part," said Pali Sachdev.