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The Evolution of Khaki

From Persian dust to British colonialism, Khaki evolved into a symbol of power and discipline in India’s history and now embraces entirely new interpretations in contemporary fashion.

Words by:

Medha V.

Photos by:

Nitin Sadana, Hunar Daga

It is a colour that demands to be taken seriously.

The word ‘khaki’ is derived from the Persian word for dust. It is rather interesting then, that the reason behind its first use was dust.  

Now, the colour is synonymous in India with the police force. But khaki was not always their colour. Uniforms of the Indian police department were white in colour when Britishers came to India. They wore a smock and white pajamas made of coarse handspun cotton, and a cotton turban. But these clothes would get dirty quickly, given the nature of the policeman’s job and the long work hours. 

So, in 1848, the British introduced a khaki uniform. Back then, tea leaves were used to make the colour. But a few years later, a German textile engineer named John Haller who was working in the Karnataka coastal city of Mangalore at the time, invented the khaki dye using oil extracted from cashew shells. Then, Lord Roberts, British governor of the Madras Presidency visited the weaving establishments of Mangalore and recommended khaki as a uniform for the British army. ***

OVER THE YEARS, the khaki tone—a light shade of tan with a slight yellowish tinge—has been attached to a sense of discipline and order. It is a colour that demands to be taken seriously.

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Priya wears a Basant Kothi frida set, BASANT KOTHI; Sanjana wears a rahat set, BASANT KOTHI; Tanya wears a block printed robe, JOURNEY OF OBJECTS, posing with an a la Francaise cushion, JOURNEY OF OBJECTS; Tamanna wears a cinched waist shirt, ANUSHÉ PIRANI.

Closely associated with khaki was the safari suit, an attire that marked a particular time and place in modern Indian history. The fitted suit consisted of a dun-coloured pair of trousers, with a half-sleeved shirt cut of the same cloth, which had so many pockets that it looked like a jacket. This was the Britishers’ preferred outfit for their long and arduous cross-country expeditions. 

Even after years of gaining independence from the British, Indian men embraced the safari suit which came in muted khaki, blue and grey tones. It defined power dressing from the 1960s onwards, and was associated with Indian men of a certain stature. The Britishers may have left the country, but Indians were not ready to fully let go of their colonial links yet. From bureaucrats to corporate employees and even sarkari babus, everyone sported the safari suit. A young Sunil Gavaskar wore them in advertisements, while actors like Rajesh Khanna and Vinod Khanna appeared on screen in safari suits. 

THIS TREND MARKED a clear departure from Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, and his insistence on the austere handspun khadi.

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Arjun wears a tailored shirt, ANUSHÉ PIRANI; Megha wears a cinched waist shirt, ANUSHÉ PIRANI; Arjun wears a tailored shirt, ANUSHÉ PIRANI.

“I do not think that khadi convinces anybody any longer of the Gandhian convictions of the wearer but if my reading of it has any point to it, then its disappearance, were it to happen, would signify the demise of a deeper structure of desire and would signal India’s complete integration into the circuits of global capital,” wrote academic Dipesh Chakrabarty in a research paper.

I.K. Gujral, who was the Prime Minister of the country in 1997-98, was seen in crisp safari suits during most of his public appearances. H.Y. Sharada Prasad, a media adviser to three former prime ministers, remembered in a 1997 essay a remark made by one of his friends: "Thank God, we have a modern, safari-wearing prime minister at last, and the era of khadi has ended." 

But the allure of the safari suit had begun fading by this time, as India entered a new era of economic liberalisation. The idea of workwear had broadened, with more and more Indians moving overseas for work and foreign brands opening up shops in India. 

Now, the khaki hasn’t fully disappeared from the Indian wardrobe. It exists almost completely free of its colonial connotations. The khaki is now a blank canvas, open to new interpretations and meanings.

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Ana wears a twill dress, MASON & MILL; Wafi wears a geoprint shirt, LINE OUTLINE.
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Medha V.

Medha V. is an independent editor and writer. She lives in Delhi.

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