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Khaki isn’t boring — and we can prove it

The pants you think are out of style are still as cool as they've always been

Men have been wearing khaki pants for nearly two centuries. About 180 years ago, a British soldier in Punjab got sick of sweating in his heavy wool jacket and trousers, so he traded them in for local lightweight cotton. The looser cut and dyed fabric were dubbed khakis, and we’ve been wearing them ever since. Nowadays, they can feel a little old-fashioned, which makes sense given they’re coming up on the bicentennial mark. Many men are beginning to feel like they need to retire their khaki pants and opt for something different, but we’re here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only are they still useful, but these pants are as cool today and as much a part of men’s style as they were in 1846.

man wearing khakis with a red button up

Colors of khakis

The word “khaki” comes from the Urdu word for dust, which describes the tan color obtained from the area’s native Mazari plant used to dye the fabric. As a result, many feel like that’s the only color available, but that couldn’t be further from the truth; khakis come in virtually any color you can imagine. They made have started out only in tan, but they have expanded exponentially since then. From darker colors like black and charcoal to lighter colors like blue and white, you can find any color of khaki you need for your wardrobe.

What defines this style of pant isn’t so much the color as the fabric. These men’s pants are lighter than the heavy wool they replaced but heavier than what most people call chinos nowadays. While they are both cotton twill, the khaki is a heavier fabric and, therefore, more durable than the lighter-weight chino.

How do you wear khakis?

Here’s where it can get a little divisive on how or when to wear khaki pants. They were officially adopted by the British military in 1884 and have been considered a work pant ever since. Their durability makes them more comfortable, more breathable, and more durable for the demanding tasks you have ahead of you. Mowing the lawn, changing your oil, or simply doing some spring cleaning can be the perfect time to wear those khakis you have in the closet.

However, that’s changed slightly over the last few decades. At some point in the last few generations, men began adopting khaki pants as a dressier option than denim. They protect their khakis from seeing harder work and try to keep them nice so they can wear them with sports coats to their daughter’s dance recital or graduation. The truth is that khakis and chinos have been muddled in the last few years. They are interchangeable with some brands, and some even call them khaki chinos. Here’s how the khaki has changed and how it fits into the menswear world today.

A dress pant is made of wool and can be either heavy or lightweight depending on the season. They are reserved for the moments in your life when you could wear a suit but decide to go with a sports coat. The chino is the ultimate in a casual pant that isn’t denim. Chinos have a slimmer profile and pair well with sneakers, boots, or drivers. The khaki pant bridges the gap between the two. They are heavier and have a wider profile than the chino, but they’re not quite dressy enough for big events, so they can be used to dress up a jacketless denim look or dress down a dress shirt.

You don’t have to wear them to work, and you don’t have to wear them with your sports coat. But what makes them as cool as they were in Punjab nearly 200 years ago is that you could wear them for both.

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Mark D. McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
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