Look at wedding photographs and it is hard not to notice how elegant most Indian men look in them. The reason is that in north India, especially, the bandhgala is widely worn on formal occasions, banishing the ill-matched Western jackets and ties that are otherwise the norm.
A visual march-past of men wearing the bandhgala all buttoned up and almost always in black wool with matching pants, however, reminds me of a favourite line in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, led on by Beatrice’s quip that she would marry his brother if he had one, has asked her to marry him. Back-pedalling gracefully, Beatrice replies that she could only do so if she “might have another (husband) for working days; Your Grace is too costly to wear every day”. In the Kenneth Branagh film version made almost three decades ago, Denzel Washington looked almost too handsome to marry, in striking quasi-military uniform that seemed like a white dinner jacket worn with black leather pants.
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This is more or less the bandhgala’s predicament in Indian men’s fashion: It’s reserved for weddings, whereas it can and should be worn to work and to dinner parties. The designer Rajesh Pratap Singh contemporised the bandhgala and has long used a diverse array of fabrics, including denim and linen. “It is our answer to the jacket. You can wear it during the day,” says Singh. “You don’t need to button it up all the way and be super stiff. You can wear it with chinos and jeans.”
After our conversation, Singh sent me two images of recent bandhgalas from his store. One was a white linen bandhgala worn with dark blue slacks. This unstructured jacket’s flourishes along the upper chest that revealed the inside seams resembled the shirt worn under a tuxedo jacket, while remaining true to its Indian roots. In its simplicity and symmetry, the jacket and pants evoked Udaipur’s Lake Palace. The second photograph was of a casual denim version with every button playfully different and a line of red selvage working like an exclamation mark down its back. Both jackets epitomised easy wear, in part because Singh has done away with shoulder pads and lining. “We work a lot with denim and indigo,” says Singh.
Raghavendra Rathore’s experimentation with styles and fabric is also notable; his ready-to-wear collection includes an asymmetric achkan.
The bandhgala won an international following decades ago but in India we remain mostly too reverential in the way we wear it. While it is true that the sleeveless waistcoat, which has come to be called the Nehru jacket, is worn much more widely today across India, it is no match for the bandhgala as a style statement.
The long-sleeved, hip-length bandhgala reached celebrity status in the West in the 1960s. The Beatles wore it after their dalliance as disciples of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even paired with a conventional collared shirt and tie. In that case, their jackets did away with the mandarin collar and were round-necked.
Moving from Hong Kong to London in 2003, when the suit and tie had fallen out of favour in media and advertising while “dress casual” remained as confusing as it is today, I too wore mandarin jackets with conventional collared shirts to work. This looked dressy yet casual as I left it open down the middle and wore it with chinos. I had one in black with a rich purple lining and a heavier tweed jacket in military green with soft, self-embroidered Chinese silk lining that my Hong Kong tailor warned would wear out long before my jacket did (he was right). London’s weather defines unpredictability; the mandarin jacket—described by Delhi-based hotelier and luxury real estate developer Shashank Bhagat as a “younger bandhgala”—allowed me to button it up whenever it turned chilly in a way a suit jacket did not.
Bhagat also favours a mandarin jacket over the confines of the tightly tailored bandhgala. He owns a very elegant cream-coloured linen mandarin jacket bought at the fashion house Shanghai Tang. “Traditionally, the Indian bandhgala was made of thick dark wool and used to be poorly tailored. It has changed since, with designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh and Raghavendra Rathore,” says Bhagat. “But the mandarin jacket appealed to me as a younger bandhgala.”
Bhagat and I like the mandarin jacket for the same reasons: It is made in multiple fabrics and has a more generous cut. He has worn his unstructured Loro Piana cashmere mandarin jacket with a T-shirt and also owns a Canali velvet mandarin jacket and a cotton one from Armani. My wardrobe includes an unstructured linen white bandhgala that I have worn with Sri Lankan sarongs to weddings in Bengaluru and parties in Delhi and a distressed navy-blue cotton mandarin jacket from Esprit with an artfully frayed collar and cuffs that I wear with jeans. A favourite is a greyish velvet Blanc de Chine jacket; I sometimes pull it out just to admire it.
My other Hong Kong purchase is more problematic. It’s a floppy, gold silk mandarin jacket bought at a Shanghai Tang sale in the late 1990s when the store specialised in a faux Qing dynasty courtier style in Day-Glo colouring. It looks like the midday sun on a winter’s day while in a cupboard, but when I wore it to a stylish sit-down Delhi dinner party in December, I resembled the neon-lit billboard of a Kerala jewellery store hoisted atop an elegant Nizamuddin rooftop.
A decade and a half ago, the confidence I gained from wearing these jackets led to a complete revamp of the way I dressed. I had arrived in a profoundly inclusive London in which almost anything Indian—from food to fashion to musicals and TV serials—was celebrated. My jackets rode the coat-tails. Wonderfully gracious colleagues applauded me for wearing them. As someone occasionally teased as a dark-skinned south Indian in a predominantly north Indian boarding school who was also, through my late teens and early 20s, coming to terms with being homosexual, I had long viewed myself as, at best, unattractive.
But wearing the mandarin jacket suddenly made me feel stylish even as I turned 40. Freed from the need to blend in and no longer struggling to match pin-striped suits with ties, my shirts became bolder. When I left London in 2010 to return to reporting in southern China, my witty FT Weekend colleagues gifted me a “leaving page”, a British newspaper ritual that gently mocks while bidding a fond farewell. Mine included a wicked takedown of a 2005 interview I did with tennis great Roger Federer, in which the newspaper’s culture columnist speculated we had mostly exchanged tips on fashion. (Fiction can be a forerunner: Federer wore a white cotton bandhgala with military-styled pockets at Wimbledon that summer). The FT’s deputy fashion editor created a top 10 list of hits from my wardrobe. Then and now, it seemed inconceivable: An ugly duckling as a teenager had somehow turned into a middle-aged man whose clothes merited a semi-serious sartorial listicle. I even framed the page. If proof were needed that wearing a bandhgala at work and play can do miracles for all kinds of men, this was it.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.