Young people of the 1960s who were unhappy with the culture and values they had grown up with began to explore other cultures, seeking different points of view. Because many of these young people opposed war and sought peaceful solutions, they admired the people of India, who had achieved independence from the British Empire in 1947 through largely nonviolent means.
In 1964 the first prime minister of independent India, pacifist Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), was pictured in Vogue magazine wearing his traditional coat. Vogue was an important fashion influence, and the Nehru jacket, named after Prime Minister Nehru, started to gain popularity. The distinctive Nehru jacket is a close-fitted, single-breasted (one row of buttons down the front) coat with a stand-up collar and no lapels. Around the same time, the popular British rock group the Beatles traveled to India to study meditation techniques, and soon the group's members began wearing Nehru jackets and setting a new fashion trend.
The jackets became popular very quickly. Celebrities from talk show host Johnny Carson (1925–) to football star Joe Namath (1943–) wore Nehru jackets, and singer Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990) was reported to own two hundred of them. Nehru jackets were made from a wide variety of materials besides plain cotton and wool, including brocade, vinyl, and sharkskin.
The Nehru jacket fad ended within just a few years. Suddenly the Nehru jacket became a symbol not only of dated and out-of-style clothing, but also of the type of person who still wore the jacket. The Nehru jacket came to represent an aging loser, trying unsuccessfully to be hip and cool, an image that has persisted for decades. In 1994 the rock group Love Battery released the song "Nehru Jacket," in which a man in bell-bottoms and a Nehru jacket unsuccessfully tries to get a date. In the Austin Powers movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, about a spy who is frozen in the 1960s and thawed out in the 1990s, Austin Powers's Nehru jacket is used to express his geeky hipness and awkwardness.
In fashion, however, what is considered outdated by one generation becomes trendy for another. In the late 1990s the Nehru jacket began to appear in fashion magazines again as a desirable garment for both women and men. In 2002 fashion designer Ermenegildo Zegna designed a "guru suit" with a Nehru jacket, and former U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–) was seen in a tuxedo with a Nehru jacket in the summer of 2001.
O'Hara, Georgina. The Encyclopedia of Fashion from 1840 to the 1980s. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1986.