The Mao Suit
and
the Nehru Jacket

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

The Mao Suit and the Nehru Jacket

Close-up of a Nehru collar, Henry Herbert Bespoke

With China and India being home to about one out of every three persons in the world (and India expected to overtake China’s population in 2028), the global socioeconomic influence of these two countries is hard to deny, as their proliferating population alone is enough to command attention.

In the past eight decades or so, classic men’s style has sought inspiration from Naples, Milan, London, and Paris. And more recently, New York City has returned on the scene after a post 1990s slump, to carve out its own take on Euro-American style from quality houses such as Paul Stuart, Samuelsohn, and Manolo Costa.  As the Northeastern United States has at last rejected the off-the-rack ‘Sack-Suit’ style, a new demand is created for suits with a stronger silhouette and handmade features—although, count on the Japanese to mystify us with the word being that the Japanese may be reviving the Sack-Suit  (with Brooks Brothers accommodating the demand by offering ‘sack suits’ on their Japanese website).

How has China and India influenced classic men’s style today? We take a look at two iconic suiting pieces: The Mao Suit popularized by China and the Nehru jacket hailing from India. With the Mao and the Nehru sometimes confused as meaning the same thing, you will notice that the collar and the standard pocket design on the two are very different.

THE MAO SUIT

CHINA-NATIONAL DAY-CELEBRATIONS (CN)

Also known as the Chinese Tunic or Zhongshan suit, but referred to here as the Mao Suit, Chinese leader Mao Zedong (pictured below) popularized this suit style by making public appearances in the Mao during his term between 1949 – 1976. Western European Socialists and intellectuals picked up the style in the 1960s and 70s, often wearing the Mao over a turtleneck.

Worn to attend formal occasions by paramount Chinese leader Hu Jintao (above left) up until 2012, the Mao has dwindled as formal attire in favor of Western-style suits, but the style is still adopted for military uniforms and formal occasions in various countries and is used today as inspiration for more distinct and daring suit designs.

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Portrait of Mao Zedong

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Note the boxy cut, the short collar, four patch pockets (with the signature pointed flap design on chest pockets),  and the absence of lapels. The jacket has only one layer of fabric, versus the Western-style two layer coat. Three cuff buttons are standard for the jacket.

No shirt or tie is necessary with this suit style, although a white shirt can be worn beneath the coat with the shirt collar peeking out around the neckline .

The strongest characteristic of the Mao is the short and rigid fold-over collar, with rounded points extended no further than the base of the band.

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“Named after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yatsen Zhongshan (1866–1925), the Zhongshan suit was inspired by military uniforms with a fitted jacket, rounded collar and Western trousers, emerging as an important fashion [statement] for young revolutionaries in the 1920s.

Later, Mao Zedong adapted the style for the Communist revolution, a variant that also drew inspiration from the trousers, tunics and black cotton shoes of Chinese peasants. The Mao suit (Maozhuang) thus symbolized revolutionary tradition, militarization of society, and revolutionary asceticism. It dominated the sartorial landscape of the 1960s and reached its height in the Cultural Revolution. Subtle differences in the Mao suit differentiated the population: peasants and workers wore indigo blue Mao jackets; People’s Liberation. Army soldiers donned khaki green; and Party cadres sported grey barathea—thus ensuring, paradoxically, that uniformity maintained hierarchical difference even while advocating egalitarian ideals. Encyclopedia of Chinese Culture.”

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Historical military alliances between China and Russia could have also played a part in Russia adopting the Zhongshan (Mao) suit  as a signal of belonging to the Communist party, although non-militants also wore the suits. As an example, Russian-born artist and scholar Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was photographed wearing a suit with Mao elements. Roerich has also been portrayed wearing a Sherwani (Nehru) collar, as he frequented India during the Second World War, where he painted epic Russian heroic/saintly themes  and met with Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss–according to Indirah Ghandi, “ideas and thoughts about closer cooperation between India and USSR.”

Roerich is featured here, wearing the same flap pocket design seen on the Mao today (and amusingly, the same flap pocket design as American western-style clothing).

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Here are some modern day Mao-inspired creations that we like:

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Timothy Coghlan (above and below) of Maosuit.com leads the luxury retail team for Savills China, advising fashion and luxury brands on their China entry, expansion and retail strategies. Clients include, LVMH, Kering, and Richemont. Timothy has been interviewed here late last year by co/inside.com.

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LBM 1911l.b.m. 1911 (Mao-Styled Flap Pockets)

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 Cifonelli (with three Mao-styled flap pockets). This jacket made of yak wool from the plateaus of the Tibetan Mountains

THE NEHRU JACKET

Today, Paul Stuart gives us an outstanding example of a modern day Nehru jacket, with the twist of  including Mao-styled flap pockets. But, it is the mandarin collar (originally worn by Mandarins in Imperial China and measuring up to 2 inches high and fastened by a hook) seen here, along with the absence of lapels that distinguishes the Indian Nehru Jacket from the all other designs.

Paul Stuart Nehru

While it may be surprising to see someone wearing a Mao suit on the street in China, the opposite is true for the Nehru suit in India and surrounding countries, where the Nehru is commonly worn throughout Southeast Asia.

And, while the Mao style is rather boxy, the Nehru suit is fitted and cut to size. There’s no need to worry about finding the right tie or shirt collar to wear with a Nehru jacket since ties are not worn with the Nehru and collarless shirts are recommended to be paired with the jacket. Other components like number of vents, shoulder construction, buttons and cuff style can vary, with these components being similar to those of the classic suit jacket.

The Nehru was likely inspired by a shirt commonly worn in India with no collar and no buttons. The ancient practice of wearing the “Kurta” shirt in India (a typically white, long collarless shirt that resembles a night shirt and an Indian traditional wardrobe piece still worn in India today) most likely influenced the design of the Nehru jacket collar, although the shirt’s mandarin collar itself is not highly notable, other than the fact that there is no collar on the shirt, and a side-flap neck area closure design on some Kurtas that is at times emulated as a closure-style for some Nehru jackets.

Even the man himself, whom the Nehru was named after, India’s first Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, did not actually wear a Nehru jacket as we know it today. Instead, he wore either an Achkan jacket (lighter weight, unlined) or more typically, a Sherwani jacket (heavier weight, lined).

Here are some examples of each type of jacket:

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Royal Black Achkan by Rama Collezionni. The Achkan is historically favored by Hindu Nobles. Here, we see the Achkan is knee-length, with little to no waist suppression or skirt flair. It is also made of lighter fabric and is usually unlined. Pay attention to the closed-neck design, compared to the Shawani below.

 

Starting out as a design worn by nobles and later more widely adopted at the turn of the 19th century, the Achkan is a knee length jacket worn today mostly in North India and in Pakistan as wedding attire (esp. in Maratha, Rajput, and Sikh ceremonies). A key feature of the Achkan is that there is only one breast pocket on the left side, in contrast to the Sherwani which generally but not always, has two breast pockets.

Sherwani

The Sherwani  is usually knee length (shorter version here) with a closer fit waist and a slight flair in the skirt. It is usually lined and made of heavier fabric. The neck featured here has a V-closure, a more complex design element compared to the Achkan neck design.

First worn as a court dress for royals in India, the Sherwani made its debut during the period of British-India (18th century), being greatly inspired by the British frock coat. Most Muslim-Indian aristocracy embraced the design, with the general population following the example.

The attire is closely associated with the founders of the Aligarh Movement and still worn to keep alive the long running tradition in the world of academics at the Aligarh Muslim University.

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India’s first Prime Minister and considered by many as the architect that helped modernize India, Jawaharlal Nehru (left) wearing a Sherwani, standing alongside Russian artist Nicholas Roerich.

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Nehru, wearing an “Achkan” in Calcutta, posing for a photo with Indira Gandhi,  February 25, 1961. The persona of Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru was so commanding that once a tribal leader from the remote Nicobar Islands agreed to sell land to the Indian Government in exchange for one of Nehru’s cult jackets. (Indian Express News)

Since the Nehru jacket is named after Jawaharlal Nehru (above), we should note that the Prime Minister actually wore the Achkan and the Sherwani. It was later that the more westernized design of the “Nehru” was popularized in the 1940s, while originally being called a closed-neck coat, or a “band gale ka”, instead of a Nehru.

Today the Nehru jacket  is the mainstay of the  more formal Bandhgala or Jodhupuri suit, a western style ensemble with a coat and trouser, sometimes accompanied by a vest, always with a Nehru collar and occasional with embroidery.

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My Best Tailor, Jodhpuri Suits

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DiwanSaheb.com

The material can be silk or any other suiting material. Normally, the material is lined at the collar and at the buttons with embroidery. This can be plain, jacquard or jamewari material. Normally, the trousers match that of the coat. There is also a trend now to wear contrasting trousers to match the coat colour.

The Nehru jacket also saw a rise to fame in the 1960s and 1970s–made popular by the Beatles, the Monkees, and Sean Connery in Dr. No. More recently, you may recall that  the antagonist “Dr. Evil” wore the Nehru Jacket in the  Austin Powers film productions.

Today, we see the spread of the Nehru’s popularity not only in India but across the globe, as the Nehru Jacket is on its way to becoming an exciting, if not quite yet ‘classic’ option for suiting.

Some modern examples:

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Henry Herbert Bespoke Nehru-Style Winter Jacket

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Nehru Smoking Jacket, Ascot and Henley Retail

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Nehru Tuxedo

It’s hard to predict whether the Nehru jacket will become a mainstay in the Western World, but we like the style and it will be a pleasure to watch as more and more quality houses and ready-to-wear labels put their own twist on the Nehru jacket.