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How Khaki Got Cool

Tracing a fabric’s journey from military issue to style standard

It’s an uncomfortable fact among peace-loving folks, but nearly every time a man gets dressed he’s effectively getting dressed for war. Countless components of the modern man’s wardrobe were developed for military use, from the battlefield fashions that evolved into the tuxedo you wore on your wedding day to trench, toggle, and peacoats—not to mention overtly military-inspired pieces like bomber jackets and combat boots. The very concept of tailored clothing bequeathed to us by Beau Brummell, the so-called father of modern costume, has its roots in Brummell’s modification of military coats for gentlemanly city dress.

And so it is with khaki, which stands alongside denim as the defining fabric of masculine American style. Whether worn by weekend warriors on the golf course, at the office with a navy blazer (another military-derived item, by the way), or relaxed and rolled up on the beach, as seen in the Spring 2017 Polo campaign, khaki is with us wherever we go. And its journey to the legs of modern men began more than 170 years ago.
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The word itself comes to us from Hindustani via Persian, where the root “khak” means soil. British troops picked up the term during their campaigns in the Indian subcontinent throughout the 19th century. They’d long been characterized by the pomp of their uniforms—just look at those conspicuous redcoats of the Revolutionary War—but it wasn’t until 1846 that military commanders finally capitulated to the inescapable logic of blending in with their surroundings. The Corps of Guides, a regiment of the British Indian Army that had previously dressed in white, was the first group to commission a desert soil–colored fabric, and by 1848 it was being woven and shipped to the corps from England under the guidance of its first- and second-in-command, Sir Harry Lumsden and William Stephen Raikes Hodson. When supplies from home ran out, the guides took to using local plant dyes to darken their once-white uniforms.
Khaki stands alongside denim as the defining fabric of masculine American style.

Between 1850 and 1900, khaki-colored cotton or linen uniforms gradually became the standard for troops campaigning in South Africa, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In the United States, khaki uniforms were first worn in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and consisted of matching trousers and tunics.

But it was World War II that helped the modern khaki pant infiltrate civilian men’s wardrobes. When hostilities ceased in 1945, countless tons of military trousers were dumped onto the free market through Army and Navy surplus stores, which became a staple of virtually every town in America. And as veterans used their GI Bills to attend college, many wore their government-issue tan cotton pants. Subsequent undergrads soon realized that khakis were perfect for the devil-may-care college life. You could wear them to the lecture hall, to the quad for a game of touch football, and then—with a jacket and button-down—out for a date. Taking care, of course, to match the stripe of one’s tie to the grass stains on one’s khakis.

Period advertising in college newspapers shows that the pants were called a variety of terms, from khakis to chino slacks in military tan. The term chino is believed to take its name from a cotton twill originally from China that was also used for military garb. This accounts for the interchangeability, though technically chino refers to the fabric and khaki to the color.
(Left to right) British troops in India started wearing khaki in the 19th century; US Coast Guardsmen in 1940s; Princeton students captured in Teruyoshi Hayashida’s influential 1965  photo book, Take Ivy; an image from the Spring 1991 Polo Ralph Lauren campaign; khaki-clad Brendan Fraser, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and others in the 1992 film School Ties
(Left to right) British troops in India started wearing khaki in the 19th century; US Coast Guardsmen in 1940s; Princeton students captured in Teruyoshi Hayashida’s influential 1965 photo book, Take Ivy; an image from the Spring 1991 Polo Ralph Lauren campaign; khaki-clad Brendan Fraser, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and others in the 1992 film School Ties

Postwar, khakis were cut full and worn creased, but they grew slimmer and shorter through the 1960s (see the seminal document of 1960s prep, the Japanese book Take Ivy, for evidence of that), and by 1979, the popular “Are You a Preppie?” poster featured the fictitious Nathaniel Worthington III wearing flood-length khakis with all the right details. The preferred cut on campus had returned to baggy, and wrinkles were considered optional—but there was certainly no crease.

By this time, Ralph Lauren was making his own khakis, which channeled his love of collegiate style and a keen eye for military detail honed during a stint in the US Army, from 1962 to 1964. Decades later, Mr. Lauren was still enamored with the material. "I wear khaki,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I love army clothes.”

Whether worn Take Ivy style, with loafers and a button-down, or military style, as demonstrated by Mr. Lauren above, khaki may well be the most versatile hue a man can wear. These days the fit is slim, though volume—and even a subtle pleat—is, one might say, on the rise. However you wear yours, few things in a man’s wardrobe hold such charm, history, or versatility.
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Longtime RL Mag contributor CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD writes regularly about classic style in its many forms, and runs the websites Ivy Style and Masculine Interiors.
  • Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation
  • Illustration by AC Lovett
  • Photograph by BJ Falk; Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • Photograph by Teruyoshi Hayashida; courtesy of PowerHouse Books
  • Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation
  • Still photograph from School Ties; Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation