Hail the safari suit, vanished symbol of 'modern' India

Time was when no self-respecting Indian businessman or civil servant would be seen in anything other than a safari suit. Not any more .

Rahul Bajaj, chairman and managing director of Bajaj Auto, wore what was seemingly an inexhaustible wardrobe of different safari suits. Ishan Tankha / The India Today Group / Getty Images
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NEW DELHI // In 1966, a young diplomat named Natwar Singh returned from the United Nations to join prime minister Indira Gandhi's secretariat. He had six colleagues, and even today, at 80, Mr Singh can recite their names.
The group was diverse - in ages, background, mother tongues - but Mr Singh notes one striking similarity. "Seven out of seven of us wore safari suits," said Mr Singh, one of Indian politics' most dapper dressers. "That's how common they were."
The safari suit was, for decades, the urban male professional's most common attire, becoming virtually a uniform in India's cities. Thousands of bureaucrats and corporate employees wore them to work. In 1983, one minister, S M I Asseer, remarked to the India Today magazine that he had as many as 25 safari suits in his wardrobe.
But in the 21st century, the safari suit's ubiquity has plummeted - so much so that "if you wear a safari suit now," said E Balaji, chief executive of Ma Foi Randstad, a large human resources consulting firm, "people will think you're living in a time warp."
The safari suit dates back to the colonial era - even to the 19th century, according to The Dictionary of Fashion History. It was, the dictionary says, "clothing created for cross-country expeditions": a dun-coloured pair of trousers, with a half-sleeved shirt cut of the same cloth, sporting so many pockets that it resembles a jacket.
This ensemble was topped off by a sola topi - a pith helmet that guarded against the sun. "Particularly with that hat, the original safari suit could be very stylish," said Arjun Khanna, a Mumbai-based fashion designer.
But the safari suit he remembers from school in the early 1980s - "when I saw a teacher wearing one" - was a very different garment. As a style statement, it had infiltrated popular fashion in the late 1960s. M. Khanna would have seen it near its peak, coming in steel greys and blues and made almost entirely of synthetic fibres.
A typical bespoke suit cost roughly Rs450 (equal to around Dh80 today), recalled N. Ramachandran, a retired government researcher. It was a significant expense, he said, but not steep enough to daunt working professionals looking to acquire a status symbol.
From the bureaucracy, the suits filtered into India's public-sector companies and into public favour. When S Shivaram joined the public-sector State Trading Corporation in 1979, he gravitated towards the garment: "It was the most common thing people were wearing."
In the public eye, the safari suit grew in prominence. The industrialist Rahul Bajaj had a seemingly inexhaustible wardrobe of them. Sunil Gavaskar, India's pre-eminent cricketer at the time, modelled them in advertisements. Film stars such as Rajesh Khanna and Vinod Khanna wore them on screen in iridescent colours.
Indeed, the popularity of safari suits was not restricted to India. Businessmen wore them in the United Arab Emirates, in south-east Asia, and in Africa. But in the West, the safari suit in pop culture - in three of Roger Moore's James Bond films, for instance, or in the soap opera Dallas - was a nod to kitsch as much as a nod to style.
In India, the safari suit symbolised a break with the handspun khadi that Mahatma Gandhi championed during the independence movement, thus standing in for a new India. In a 1997 essay, the late H Y Sharada Prasad, a media adviser to three former prime ministers, recalled an acquaintance's remark upon the election of I K Gujral as prime minister: "Thank God, we have a modern, safari-wearing prime minister at last, and the era of khadi has ended."
The safari suit also capitalised on new rayon and polyester plants that were established in India in the 1970s, notably by Reliance Industries. These plants produced the synthetic fibres that were otherwise expensive to import.
The choice of synthetics for safari suits was unusual. "It's one of the most popular fabrics in India - sadly, because it's completely unsuited to the heat," Mr Khanna said. "But it's cheap and considered durable. There's also this shine or sheen which the synthetic fabrics give off abundantly."
Mr Balaji dates the beginning of the safari suit's decline to the early 1990s, as the Indian economy opened up to foreign investment.
"After liberalisation, managers in multinational companies followed the dress codes of their headquarters, or of visitors from London or Singapore," he said. "The more India integrated into the world economy, the faster the safari suit faded away."
Mr Khanna, the exclusive design director for Raymond, one of India's biggest suiting manufacturers, maintains that safari suits still hold some cachet in smaller towns. "In Indore or Pune or even a smaller city like Chennai, you'll find some traders and small businessmen wearing them," he said. "Raymond stopped advertising safari suits around three years ago, but they still make them, and in smaller towns, a chunk of their sales are still safari suits."
But in India's biggest cities, the safari suit is now indelibly associated with the so-called License Raj - the slow, inefficient Indian bureaucracy of the 1970s and the 1980s.
"When I went into the private sector, I realised that the safari suit was something that reflected a government or a public-sector culture," Mr. Shivaram said. "It wasn't a part of this new culture, so I stopped wearing them. The safari suit was comfortable, but I have to say: I don't miss it."