A Brief History of Khakis and Chinos

A Brief History of Khakis and Chinos

| 06.24.24

Worn in various guises as early as the 15th century but formally adopted in the mid-17th century, the “red coat” of the British army quickly became synonymous with Her Majesty’s forces — even to the extent that it was adopted as a pejorative term by Americans fighting the Revolutionary War. Though its origins stem from the House of Tudor and its crimson and gold livery, the red coat did serve to easily distinguish British regulars from opposing forces during an age when battle consisted of lines of infantryman firing volleys at one another from across a field. In this type of warfare, camouflage served little purpose. 

By the mid-19th century, the evolution of the rifle and British colonial rule in subtropical and tropical climes were laying bare the deficiencies of the red coat: As the slow and clumsy muzzle-loading musket gave way to the breech loader, a quicker rate of fire could now be accomplished from a kneeling or prone position; exposed lines of infantry in bright colors were, more than ever before, an invitation to disaster on the battlefield — especially against a native enemy fighting a guerilla war. 

The Corps of Guides in India as depicted by Richard Simkin (Image by Wikipedia)

Under the newly established British Raj in India, red coats were fighting alongside Indian troops from diverse provinces across the Subcontinent. In the late 1840s, Sir Harry Burnett "Joe" Lumsden, an English officer who reached the rank of lieutenant-general, was charged with raising a special unit to act as guides and pathfinders along the frontier with Pakistan. This mixed regiment, dubbed the Corps of Guides, consisted of British as well as Indian infantry and cavalry recruited from amongst the local tribes. 

A trooper in khaki uniform during the Boer War (1899-1902) - (Image by Military Sun Helmets)

Unlike the British with their red uniforms, the Indians wore lightweight, sand-colored clothing dyed with local plants that blended well into the landscape. Lumsden and his subaltern, understanding its advantages, decided to adopt this color — called “khaki,” from the Hindi word for “dust” or the Urdu/Persian word for “soil” — for the Corps of Guides uniforms, unwittingly instigating a new phase of military uniform history that lasts until today. Adopted in time for the 1868 Expedition to Abyssynia, “khaki drill” was also worn in the Mahdist War of 1884-1889 and the Second Boer War that began in 1899. Notably, however, khaki uniforms were not officially adopted by the British as Service Dress until 1902, with forces during the Alto-Zulu War of 1879 and the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881 retaining their red uniforms.

"The American Soldier 1903" - note the khaki uniform - (Image by U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Interestingly, American forces began experimenting with khaki uniforms at almost the exact same time: In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops stationed overseas in the Philippines and Cuba began wearing khaki-colored cotton drill trousers said to be imported from China, giving them a moniker adopted from pantalones chinos, Spanish for “China pants.” Calling them simply “chinos,” they adopted these khaki-colored trousers into the U.S. Army hot weather uniform in 1903, keeping them in use through the First World War. 

By the time the Second World War kicked off in 1939, much of the world was engulfed in khaki — although the fit was different depending on which country one was fighting for: While the British favored a flared thigh with a narrow leg for its ease of wear whilst on horseback — not to mention its elegance — the American service uniform from the same time featured a distinctly wider leg and a higher rise. (Indeed, the American servicemen mingling with their Allied brethren at the Long Bar of Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, in 1942 are readily distinguishable by the positive sea of material enveloping their legs. One has to imagine that this almost laughably wide cut caused the demise of more than one G.I. when it became fouled in a motorcycle wheel or a ship’s hawser.) 

Khakis proved popular in 1960s collegiate circles - (Image by Pinterest)

Khaki-colored trousers — “chinos,” in American parlance — weren’t relegated only to military use. As early as 1905, Levi Strauss & Co. included them in its inventory, retailing them at fine haberdasheries on the west coast. But it was the Second World War that formed the catalyst for widespread civilian adoption of cotton khaki trousers, both due to the availability of excess material, and also for changing dress codes that saw women (led by Katherine Hepburn) ditch skirts for slacks. At Princeton in the years following the end of the War, young students began sporting chinos and pairing them with blazers; it wasn’t long before this trend spread to the rest of the Ivy League, and soon, the style was everywhere.

"Ivy" style icon President John F. Kennedy- (Image by Wikipedia)

President John F. Kennedy liked to wear them, as did screen icons such as Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. In the 1990s, they were adapted for use by legions of office workers in the move to “business casual,” but by the 2000s, high-end selvedge denim grew in popularity and began replacing chinos in the office. Today, mega-retailers such as Kohl’s and Walmart stock reams of inoffensive khakis, which can also be found for cheap at retailers such as Old Navy or Banana Republic. And while they haven’t quite come back into the zeitgeist with a vengeance, the 2020s move away from narrow-waisted trousers has seen somewhat of a resurgence in the chino. 

Ultimately, this versatile look, with its military origins and dusty connotations, has become a sartorial icon no less important than the t-shirt. Call them what you will — “khakis,” “chinos,” or something else: They’re still worn, in various shades, by armies around the world, and there’s little doubt that they’ll always form an important piece of the male uniform.

Our Favorite Khakis and Chinos

Dockers Easy Khakis, Pleated, Classic Fit ($50.00)

Dockers Easy Khakis, Pleated, Classic Fit - (Image by Dockers)

Pleated for an injection of tailored class — and movement — this pair of wider Dockers features a healthy injection of polyester for stretch. 

Crew 484 Slim-fit Stretch Chino Pant ($89.50)

Crew 484 Slim-Fit Strech Chino Pant - (Image by J.Crew)

This more modern fit includes 3% elastane in addition to 7.9oz twill cotton, giving it a perfect weight for year-round wear.

Press Khaki Cotton Chino Pants - Classic Fit ($135.00)

Press Khaki Coton Chino Pants Classic Pants - (Image by J.Press)

It’s hard to go wrong with this American-made pair of chinos in classic cotton twill with a flat front — just like vintage military models.