Great taste has always been a part of our cultural DNA. Yes, we did maybe lose our way for a bit during the ’90s, but it does seem like Indian fashion is on a path to redemption. While the Europeans came to India initially in search of spices, it was our abundant treasure trove of exquisite jewellery, embroidery, cotton, and other rich fabrics that caught the eye of the greedy Imperial powers. Historically, the Indian man’s style graph has traversed the whole spectrum—of simple to ornate made-ups, and everything in-between. Here’s a closer look at the style evolution of the Indian man.
The (recorded) humble beginning
Our ancestors had a keen understanding of the art of dressing up. Did you know that the earliest evidence of textile production in India comes from 2500 BCE from Indus Valley? Most of the iconography and figurines unearthed from the advanced urban civilisation which thrived in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, point towards their love for jewellery and draped clothing.
While most of the figurines discovered were in their birthday suits, a few like the statue of the Priest-King wearing a ‘printed robe’ over one shoulder and armband, are proof that Indian men did pay attention to how they presented themselves. Then came The Vedic period (1500 – 500 BCE). People from this era took the keep-things-simple-style-motto to another level: Just a cloth wrapped around the whole body, and draped over the shoulder, and avoided jewellery or embellishments like the plague.
Embroidered jhutis, bejewelled court dresses and the earliest possible version of pants
Indian royalty has always had an eye for all things opulent and dandy. Celebrity Stylist Nitasha Gaurav, who has been styling Bollywood actor and sartorial revolutionary in men’s fashion Ranveer Singh for the last eight years, elucidates, “Men wore as much colour, print and embroidery as women—you only have to take a look at the pictures of the Maharajas and aristocrats to confirm this. There are enough and more tales about kings commissioning jewellery pieces of the finest quality. Their shoes were elaborate and made of exotic leather, and their wardrobes filled with outfits made with exquisite textiles!”
The dawn of the Mauryan Empire saw the use of the Tunics, the earliest depiction of the cut-and-sewn fabric. During the following Gupta Period, stitched garments became a sign of royalty. The antariya, a lower body cotton garment, were worn by kings. This perhaps can be touted as the earliest version of pants/trousers!
Then came the mighty Mughals, who loved to show off their wealth. They were known for their luxurious and extravagant outfits sewn in vibrant fabrics like silk, velvet, brocade, and the soft-as-a-feather, muslin. Jama, a traditional long, overlapping coat tied around the waist, pyjama-style pants and headgear encrusted with precious gems were how the Mughals rolled! They also had a thing for embroidered jhutis (which curved up in the front) from Lucknow and loved to team their outfits with statement jewellery pieces. The Rajputs also loved all things grand. While their go-to look was the aristocratic court dress in rich hues—complete with a short jacket, belt, pagdi (turban) and churidar pyjama—the nobles preferred wearing jama or sherwani. The Rajput men also had a taste for bold jewellery pieces in pearls and other exquisite stones.
Simpler silhouettes, muted colours and other colonial touches
With India becoming a colony of the British Empire, western concepts started trickling into society. Men, especially among nobles and the educated upper class, began to choose simpler silhouettes and muted shades: No more court dresses or the beautiful jewel tones of our royal past!
The sherwani evolved into a hybrid version of the Victorian frock coat and the Indian achkan, both are long-sleeved and knee-length jacket/coat. The nobles also wore the British-style dress uniforms and the educated rich even wore suits and headgear.
The Nehru jacket and post-independence influences
Indo-western styles remained in prominence in Independent India. No list of Indian trendsetters will be complete without a mention of the first PM of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. His style was so impeccable that in 2012 TIME magazine included his infamous Nehru jacket in the list of top global political fashion statements! The Nehru jacket is also a descendant of achkan. The magazine describes its listing like this: ‘Indeed, it was when the jacket was marketed to Western audiences that it took the ‘Nehru’ title, the charismatic Prime Minister having popularised its style in public appearances during his tenure in the government.’
Onscreen style icons and trendsetters
Before the existence of social media and fashion influencers, there were films and the stars who brought timeless performances and trends. Post-Independence, Indian fashion was a sort of marriage between the bygone era of the Raj, combined with a hint of new-found patriotism. This was clearly evident in the way the heroes who lit up the big screen styled themselves. Celebrity stylist Divyak D’Souza who has styled Farhan Akhtar, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Abhay Deol and a slew of top athletes, opines, “India’s film and fashion have, and continues to be, inextricably linked. Whether it was Rajesh Khanna’s safari suits or Amitabh Bachchan’s bell-bottoms—how Indian men dressed have perennially been connected to what their matinee idols wore on the silver screen.”
Often referred to as the greatest showman of India, actor Raj Kapoor’s style was heavily inspired by European influences. Perhaps his most iconic look is the one from Shree 420 (1955)—with ankle-length pants, hat and cap-toe shoes—which are all back in fashion today. Dev Anand set hearts racing whenever he appeared onscreen with his impeccable personal style. He dominated men’s fashion during his reign from the ’60s to the ’70s. Dev Anand’s puffed hair, suits, neckties, paperboy caps and jackets—made international trends aspirational to Indian men. He made wearing scarves fashionable for men and often rocked suits in pinks and reds; the legend was intentionally or unintentionally, bridging the gap between male and female fashion!
The ‘angry young man’ of the 1970s, Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan, in true hipster fashion of the era, popularised flared-bottom trousers and leather jackets. This was a massive shift from the slim pants, safari suits and round-neck A-line kurtas popularised by actor Rajesh Khanna.
The ’80s brought in all things bold and mostly sparkly. A standout star during this time was Rishi Kapoor who wore a fully sequinned number for a song. He was known for his bright-hued sweaters and cardigans, and his love for the hill-station-holiday vibe. The late actor who was active on Twitter has often tweeted about his passion for collecting sweaters.
The 1990s and early 2000s popularised Salman Khan’s multi-hued vests to Sharukh Khan’s branded, tight sporty tees, cargo pants and other informal wear and Indian wear. Today actors Ranveer Singh, Ayushmann Khurrana, Shahid Kapoor, Jim Sarbh and Vijay Verma are all pushing the envelope with men’s fashion.
International labels, e-commerce and accessibility
For nearly 10 years of her career, celebrity stylist Isha Bhansali, in her own words, was “predominantly a womenswear stylist.” “I started styling male celebrities by chance, and immediately realised the vacuum and scope for growth in that area,” she says. Today, she’s the one behind the many fantabulous looks of actor Ayushmann Khurrana and many more. “While fashion and cinema remain hinged at the hips, the thing that has changed is men’s approach towards style in general,” she explains.
Nowadays, with access to social media, smartphones and online shopping, men are more than willing to experiment with their looks. Says D’Souza, “Having the accessibility to alternative points of view is always a great thing, both in life and fashion.” Until recently, more thought was paid to functionality than style. D’Souza feels that with the emergence of high street brands and online shopping platforms, and the inevitable cultural shift of men being encouraged to groom and express themselves with their clothing—Indian men’s fashion is at the cusp of a new phase.
Casual wear, athleisure, relaxed tailoring, fitness wear
There’s so much for male shoppers to choose from, and mix and match for their wardrobes and self-expression. “I think a major part to play has been the shift to social media: Today, there are platforms for men to dress up, share tips and tricks, and follow influencers and opinion leaders in the field. Vanity, coupled with validation is a heady cocktail to motivate people into dressing up,” he adds.
Bhansali says the availability of many international brands in malls across the country, has also altered men’s sartorial and shopping choices. She says, “There is easy access to styles worn by their icons—be it supermodels, actors or athletes and other celebrities. Plus, Indian designers are also doing more western prêt other than the usual festive or occasion wear.”
On the anvil: Gender fluid styles and revival of Indian craftsmanship
According to Gaurav, “Increasingly, men are making forays into more elaborate dressing. They are choosing colours, prints, designs that were hitherto not considered. You see men in brocade suits, bright kurtas with asymmetric silhouettes, and an interest in standing out and looking unique, rather than blending in.”
“Men’s fashion/styling has a lot of unchartered territory in terms of what can be done. It’s also a great time to work in menswear, what with it being on the cusp of a new era. With Ranveer (Singh), I have been fortunate to have an opportunity to work with someone confident in his own skin and not afraid of expressing himself, regardless of the world’s opinion. He enjoys fashion and isn’t restricted by any preconceived notions of masculinity. Which is why we have been able to try so many new things—such as gender-fluid silhouettes and eclectic prints and colours, ” she says. In addition, Gaurav’s also glad that there’s a revival in the use of traditional Indian textiles. “It affects so many people’s lives and bears so much of our history. It also answers the need of the hour—sustainability.”
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To conclude, celebrated Indian Designer, Rahul Mishra is certain that men’s fashion in India is in an exciting space and one to watch out for. According to him, “Despite India’s rich and vibrant heritage of craft and textiles, Indian men have only recently been readily embracing expressive colours and prints in their everyday fashion. Their interests have also evolved due to increased exposure to international fashion. Overall, I feel men in India are beginning to be more individualistic with their sartorial choices and are communicating more through their style.” The designer also feels that the gap between ‘ethnic wear’ and ‘western clothing’ is also bridging lately with an intermixing of subcultures, local references and silhouettes.