Not At All Drab: How Chinos Conquered Casual Wear

Sleeping man wearing khakis
Image credit: simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0

Chinos, like so many of the clothing items we wear in our everyday lives, can be traced back to military origins. Since their invention in the mid-nineteenth century, chinos have made the long journey all the way from the terrors of the battlefield to the banality of the big-box retail uniform. And while that might seem like a slight, I mean it as a compliment: For any design to survive intact for well over a century and a half is one thing, but for a piece of militaria to become so ubiquitous as to become utterly inoffensive and essentially invisible (surely its grounds for inclusion alongside the corporate logo polos and clip-on name tags of so many retail uniforms) is quite another. Such normcore universality is a distinction entirely unto itself.

But before considering the present status of khaki trousers any further, let’s turn first to their past. I recently wrote about the trench coat marking a turning point in the way that military uniforms were conceived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The case of khakis is similar in tone. Like trench coats, they were born (as we shall see) out of the process of an outmoded uniform getting a much-needed, context-appropriate update. They also literally share a tone, since both trenches and chinos mostly come in the same tan or dust-coloured hue.

Colour, indeed, is at the heart of the issue as far as origins are concerned. While accounts vary on who exactly should get the credit, khaki uniforms got their first use by colonial troops contending with dusty terrain in India (the word ‘khaki’ is borrowed from the Hindi word meaning earth or dust). The French claim to have come up with the idea while in Pondichery in southeastern India when some of their troops, so annoyed by having their white uniforms stained by the yellowish-brown dust of the local roads, simply took to dyeing their outfits themselves, after which the British did so in imitation.

The Brits, by contrast, give credit to Sir Harry Lumsden for doing the same in the 1840s. By this point, it had become abundantly clear that the red coats that British soldiers had been wearing since Oliver Cromwell’s day were not fit for use on the subcontinent. They were hot, heavy, and, most importantly, they didn’t exactly blend into the local terrain — or any terrain, for that matter. While their bright colour may have been useful for telling friend from foe in earlier conflicts, in this new setting it had clearly become a liability. As a result, khaki-coloured uniforms started catching on, gradually spreading throughout the British armed forces in India, as well as in South Africa, Sudan, and Afghanistan a few decades later.

Spend any time reading about khaki and you’ll find any number of things listed as being put to use in the nascent dyeing process: soil, tea, coffee, the local mazari plant, and even curry. Credit for the development of a more standardised dying process usually goes to John Haller, a weaver from Europe who introduced the first handlooms to the Indian region of Mangalore in the 1850s. Thanks to Haller’s aid, khaki uniforms could be made within the British Empire and distributed more widely, rather than having them imported from China, which had previously been the arrangement.

The Chinese origin of military khaki is, however, where the trousers in question got their other name. American troops first adopted tan-coloured uniforms in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, during which time ‘chino’, a corruption of the Spanish word for China, was first adopted (American GIs also took to calling them ‘suntans’ at one point, though that has proven a less enduring appellation).

The first commercially produced chinos arrived in 1906 courtesy of Levis’ Sunset label (80 years later, Levi’s would go on to buy Dockers, arguably the brand most synonymous with making khaki pants), but it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that they really took off in civilian life. As returning soldiers held on to their uniforms and stores began selling surplus army stock at low prices, chinos gradually caught on with a new generation of wearers. Young people started making them their own and soon they became staples on job sites and college campuses alike, earning khaki pants the rare distinction of being a staple of both workwear and Ivy-inspired clothing.

They were given a further boost by a host of uber-cool early adopters. There were the explorers (like Charles Lindbergh and Teddy Roosevelt), the writers (like Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac), and a host of Holywood stars. The latter group included the glamorous likes of James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. Then, from a slightly later generation, came Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and, most famous of all, President John F. Kennedy. 

Unfortunately, all of the midcentury glitz couldn’t keep khaki pants from falling victim to their own success. As casual Fridays began to take hold and the clothing people wore to the office became more informal, chinos soon became the semi-formal trouser of choice. The drudgery of everyday use soon made them seen drab in nature and not just in colour. Which brings us all the way back to where we started off: the perceived low point that is Walmart greeter look.

I grew up just around the time that khaki pants reached their reputational nadir, which is perhaps why I harbour a soft spot for them. While I love denim, I’ve also always quietly rooted for chinos, which, as the obvious alternative to jeans, have long held something of an underdog quality for me. If denim were the Michael Jordan of casual wear, khaki would be the Scotty Pippen, or maybe even the Steve Kerr; the rock-solid utility player who is inevitably eclipsed by the light of a more popular star. Chinos have never enjoyed quite the same rebel appeal or the designer cache as jeans have. There are no ‘khaki bros’ to speak of, no communities organized around the topic of dust-coloured serge.

Yet, a well-made pair of chinos boasts many of the same merits that their denim counterparts do: They’re functional, comfortable, and will only improve with age. They also go with just about everything and can be dressed up or down within a wide range of contexts. Plus, their plain appearance means that they are the perfect foundation on which to build nearly any outfit. They were literally invented to blend in — what more could you ask for in a wardrobe workhorse? Plus, since the advent of #menswear and the dawn of social media, the tan trousers worn by innumerable consummate dressers have demonstrated that what was once deemed office drone drab can easily be turned into fun, fashionable, and fab.

Which is why I wear them just about as often as I do jeans, almost as a matter of pride. To paraphrase Elvis (a man who donned both jeans and khakis to great effect in his time), fifty million menswear influencers and Walmart employees can’t be wrong.