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Where did khaki pants come from?

What the hell does ‘khaki’ mean anyway? We use the term almost daily and yet do we really know where it came from or what it means? We dug into the archives over at Dockers to learn more about one of our favorite classics.


Sir Henry Lumsden, stationed in India in 1846, dyed his cotton pajamas to create a uniform more suitable to the climate. Khakis are born. Khaki refers to the light yellow-brown color and is derived from Hindustani meaning ‘soil-colored’. Cloth was dyed in mulberry juice giving them the yellow-brown coloring. Not long after this all British and Indian regiments were sporting the khaki uniform.


During the time that the United Kingdom fought the South African Republic (better known as the Second Boer War), the British became known as ‘Khakis’ because of their now iconic uniforms. And after the victory by the British they called an election, which is now known as the ‘khaki election’.

It was also around this time that the United States Army adopted the drab color for its uniforms during the Spanish-American War (1898). Soon the Navy and Marine Corps followed suit.


Twill pants were manufactured under the Levi Strauss Make label and came in tan, bronze and wood colors.


From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Charles Lindbergh and Teddy Roosevelt, khakis became standard wear for explorers and adventurers. If you have ever seen Robert Redford in Out of Africa, that will kind of explain it.

Image used with permission by copyright holder


During World War II, the U.S. Army sought a high quality cotton fabric to provide a consistent look for uniforms. The search ended with khaki. Khakis make the transition to civilian life as young men returning home from the front continue to wear them.


The Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ years presented a more casual, All-American look to the public, wearing one-button suits and relaxing in khakis.


The Republicans take office and conservatism is the order of the day. Levi Strauss & Co. (and many others- hello Ralph Lauren) sees a niche in the marketplace and khakis become a staple of every man’s wardrobe.

In 1985 Levi Strauss & Co. America Merchandise Manager Susan Kilgore saw the “Docker Pants” in Hong Kong and brought them back to the U.S. The following year the product launched under the name Dockers and we all lost our minds over them.


While khaki has never really left our closets, it certainly lost its cool factor until recently when heritage brand revival happened and classic clothing became cool again. Now, khakis are again a must have and range from the still annoyingly pleated corporate conglomerates to the urban streetwear kids. Menswear star Sid Mashburn recently went so far as to launch a pair with beading (!) and Dockers has had a serious comeback with their new fits and styles (you know we love the Alpha khaki). The logo was even recently spotted on the royal bum of Prince Harry.

So next time you are talking style with your crew, throw some of this knowledge their way. Who knew they knew a word in Hindustani.

Bryan Holt
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Bryan Holt is a writer, editor, designer, and multimedia storyteller based in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate from the…
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