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The History of Khaki: Anything But Drab

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Queen Victoria's Own Corps of Guides(Frontier Force Lumsdens) c. 1910 by K.E. Rose

Khaki is a color. Not a cut, not a fabric, but simply a color. And yet, most folks seem to use the word interchangeably for “chinos” or as a placeholder for a lightweight cotton twill. To clear up the common misconceptions about khaki, the color, and the popular pieces of clothing that have been dyed in this evocative (though often dorky) hue, we must go back. Way back. To the latter half of the 19th century, when khaki was not just associated with dads at barbecues, but instead with staying alive in hostile, foreign territory.

In The Beginning

British Infantry. Image via Cjsmenswear.

Khaki, like many of our favorite menswear staples began life as a military advancement. One that was only begrudgingly adopted. Khaki, as most historians will point out is a loanword from Hindustani, one that means “soil-colored.” Khaki, the color, was first worn by the British Indian Army, specifically the Corps of Guides, in 1846. This particular unit, assembled and led by Henry Lumsden, was for the most part comprised of natives, dragooned into serving the British cause in skirmishes near the Peshawar border. By now 70 years into their occupation of India, the English were still wearing the woolen red uniforms they’d used since Cromwell’s day. The heavy weight of their uniforms and the bright colors were absurdly impractical in battles in the sweltering Indian heat, but they were a symbol for the prototypical Englishman’s imagined superiority over the natives.

Corps of Guides. Image via Pinterest.

By the late 1800s, it was becoming clear just how impractical the red uniforms were. The advent of smokeless gunpowder and combat with native troops, who refused to simply line up and get shot at like most European armies, were clear indicators that warfare was changing. Only several decades before, back in major European conflicts, opposing armies would simply line up and fight one another, totally obscured by the smoke from their weapons. So the savvier English officers present in the Corp of Guides noticed how their Indian privates wore only lightweight cotton garments and smeared them with soil and even tea to blend into their surroundings. Two years later, in 1848, the first official khaki uniforms were issued.

Michael Caine in the film “Zulu,” which featured period-accurate redcoats. Image via The Telegraph.

Even the stodgiest and most stiff-upper-lipped of British officers could see the value of the cotton twill dyed khaki, but it took almost 50 years for the new uniforms to be fully embraced. Though they saw wear in the First Boer War, other notable English colonial campaigns (in very hot places) were fought in those same old redcoats. Despite the reluctance at higher levels to formally adopt khaki, British troops, when they were issued bright, white uniforms, would smear them with all manner of things give their uniforms a khaki hue, even if it was an imperfect and primitive dyeing method. A perfected khaki dye was patented right before the Second Boer War in 1899 and the color of the British uniform remained more or less the same all the way through the two World Wars.

Americans Adopt the Hue

Future President Theodore Roosevelt and some fellow “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War. Image via the Theodore Roosevelt Center.

Tried and tested by all the major powers, khaki-dyed, lightweight cotton twills became the de facto uniform for any colonizing power. If you were going to ship your boys abroad to pillage and conquer someplace in the Southern Hemisphere, khaki was your go-to color. Americans wore the color for the first time in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The trousers the American troops wore became called “chinos,” allegedly because they had been imported from China and borrowed the Spanish word for that country to describe them. Perhaps because the first chinos were khaki and the most notable khaki garments were made from a cotton twill, all three pieces of the puzzle began to be confounded.

American Expeditionary Forces, WWI. Image via Naval History and Heritage Command.

American Expeditionary Forces, when they joined the fray during World War I, were again wearing khaki. Their chinos, adapted from those worn during the Spanish-American War were worn tucked into puttees (coincidentally another Hindi word), giving them a peculiar jodhpur-esque look.

World War II and the Proliferation of Khakis

Image via the Seattle Times.

Though the khaki chino had seen service for nearly a hundred years by the time World War II began, it would be that conflict that truly brought these so-called “khakis” to the general public. It was also during World War II, particularly worn by American troops in the Pacific Theatre, that the khaki chino reached its zenith.

Preceding iterations of the khaki trouser seem dated, with their flared thighs for riding and narrow bottoms for tucking into leg wraps. The World War II service chino ballooned into an entirely new and much larger garment, with a very high rise and an extremely wide leg. Though the slim-leg-favoring fashionistas might think this seems sloppy, the enlarged proportions made for far greater comfort in the tropical climes in which they were worn. Not only this, but this new cut heightened an impression of “I don’t give a fuck,” for which American troops were infamous among their allies. While almost all other uniform pieces sought to enhance and highlight the so-called “military body,” the American khaki service chino only highlighted the waist, the rest was all comfort and no shits given.

Princeton students and Faculty, 1957. Image via Ivy Style.

The khaki chino came home for the first time upon war’s end. So much khaki twill had been made for the war effort that wartime contractors had extra rolls to whip into civilian clothing. Not only that, but the muted natural hue gained some patriotic caché for its prominent role in most of the armed forces’ uniforms. By wearing khaki, you weren’t just getting in on a trendy military-inspired garment, you were also supporting the troops! The larger profile of the service chino made for plenty of comfort, which made them a huge hit on college campuses nationwide. And the fact that they were made from durable cotton and not some fussy wool, made them way easier to take care of and keep clean.

The Long Decline

Heinous. Image via Onesouthernman.

Never as rugged or debonair as when it was worn in the Pacific War, the khaki chino has slowly slipped from its WWII pedestal to the sale rack at your local J.C. Penny’s.  Khaki pieces of clothing, not unlike jeans, haven’t reached their full potential until sufficiently beaten-up and lived in. The 1960s saw the chino slimmed down for a youth market hungry for new colors, fits, and synthetic options. Dockers and the like have lowered the rises and tapered the legs, making them less an endimanché statement piece, but a Walmart uniform.

Though the color khaki has a troubled record, often tied to brutal, colonial warfare; there is something essential about this most subtle of camos. It pairs well with just about anything and garments cut from this cloth were so ubiquitous after WWII that they are readily available in just about any style at your local vintage emporium. Though the fit and fabric may change, the color is timeless.