Undivided India had three fashion frontiers in Lahore, Calcutta and Bombay. But that was till the mid-1930s. As the new Capital of British India and driven by its English lifestyle, new Delhi soon emerged as the country’s fashion destination. And everything for its fashionistas revolved around Connaught Place.
Imported cosmetics, the latest hairstyle or the trendiest cut for your suit—CP had them all. Unlike the shops in the Walled city, those in Connaught Place imported all their products from England. They kept themselves abreast of the latest fashion trends in England through advertisements in newspapers and magazines, easily available in Delhi. And, most new cosmetics and clothes would arrive in CP shops within six to eight months of their launch in England.
Britishers, the royalty, the rich and the famous, all of them came to CP for custom-made suits. So much so that CP unofficially became the Savile Row of the country. This all-stop shopping destination boasted of legendary tailors like Ranken & Company, Trevillion & Clark, Phelps, etc. All these stores were run by Britishers. Ranken & Company prided itself as robe-makers by appointment to His Majesty King George V. But Indian tailors too, like Md Omar & Sons, SC Sharma & Company, and Vaish, were quite in demand. Vaish tailors are still in business at Rivoli cinema.
Ranken, which catered to the rich and the royalty, kept catalogues of the latest fashions in London. Enid, run by an English women, was the most sought after ladies’ tailor. “Army men and civil servants used to be the best dressed men then. Every top tailor in CP had a large number of military men as clients. These clients were often called ‘tommies’. And every top tailor advertised himself as a Civil & Military Tailor those days,” said Ashok Vaish, whose father started Vaish at Rivoli cinema in 1939.
The 1930s also saw the emergence of new global fashion trends—and the denizens of the country’s new Capital were quite quick to adopt them. Long coats and scarves gave way to short English coats and collar ties. Till the mid-1940s, double-breasted drape suits with peak lapels were in vogue, mostly worn by Britishers and the fashionable elite of the city, a breed that included civil servants, anglicised Indians from Civil Lines and rich traders of Walled city. While Harris Tweed and Dormeuil were the most popular fabric brands, broad stripes with herring bone was the most preferred cloth pattern.
The city’s young fashionable people replaced braces with belts to hold trousers. Felt fedora hats and sola hats in vogue in Calcutta also became popular in Delhi. Men couldn’t get enough of Christy’s hats and Sulka ties, while British women even made their children wear sola hats to protect them from the sun. Many top tailors and drapers in CP stocked not just the best of English worsteds, tweeds, poplins, but also the accessories.
Jaeger, which imported its stock from London, was the most sought-after knitwear brand. In summers, a number of Delhiites, preferred to wear a Double-Horse Chinese Boski shirt and ‘R-52’ brand white makhan jean trousers (velvet-finish) with peshawari chappals. The more fashionable, however, preferred white gabardine shirts; some even wore khakhi gabardine.
Among shoes, brands like K, Lotus and Barrats—imported from London—ruled. Among Indian shoe brands, Balujas—the first shop to open in CP’s B-block in 1931—was the most famous. “Lord Mountbatten was a regular here. He always bought his Oxfords and Brogues from us. Pandit Nehru also bought his Peshawaris from us,” said Vidur Mehta, the third generation of the Mehta family which runs the shop.
Then there were cosmetics like Mercolized Wax, Hazeline Snow, Brylcreem, Yardley hair oil, 4711 Eau-de-Cologne which were quite popular and easily available in famous general stores of the Connaught Place of 1930s. The most popular stores that stocked these goods were Empire stores and the Army&Navy store.
For the city’s chic men, Roy&James at Janpath was the most sought-after saloon and parlour. One could often spot the rich and the famous waiting for a haircut, a proof of how the Delhi of 1930s and 40s was at its fashionable best.