What’s the Difference Between Chinos vs. Khakis?
Here’s a question you’ll see on every menswear forum out there — just what’s the difference between khakis and chinos?
Unfortunately, most places try to answer the question by diving into the history of the two words. And while that’s interesting, it doesn’t actually help someone who’s shopping for dress-casual trousers very much.
Chinos vs. Khakis: The Difference
So here’s your definitive answer, insofar as there is one. Manufacturers and advertisers have strayed from these boundaries enough that you’ll have to take this with a big old grain of salt, but broadly speaking here are the differences:
- Khakis are thick, straight-legged, and typically pleated (although plain fronts are available from most brands these days). They have cuffs at the bottom hems.
- Chinos are lightweight, tapered so that they narrow as they go lower on the leg, and can be either cuffed or uncuffed. They are generally flat-fronted.
- Both styles are made from cotton twill, and are traditionally dyed somewhere in between a very pale cream color and a dark tan.
Of the two, khakis are more toward the sturdy work-wear end of things, while chinos are lighter and a bit dressier.
Now, are you going to find exceptions to these rules? Of course, you are.
Manufacturers have been labeling any old cotton dress trousers as either one of these words, or sometimes as both, for years. It’s entirely possible to find something being sold as “khaki chinos.”
(Technically, that could even be correct. The original meaning of “khaki” is a specific color, from the Urdu word for “dust,” unrelated to any specific style of trouser. “Chino,” on the other hand, was a specific weave of lightweight cotton twill. So if you took chino cloth and dyed it khaki, you would, in fact, have “khaki chinos.” Confusing, no?)
So don’t take any of this as gospel. There’s no real guarantee that chinos from Brand A are going to be lighter and dressier than khakis from Brand B. You’ll have to look at the specific trousers and see what their materials and details look like for yourself.
But in general – khakis, sturdy and utilitarian. Chinos, lighter and a bit dressier. Khakis will look more blocky; chinos more streamlined. Or at least that’s the theory.
A Quick History of Khakis
Of the two terms, “khakis” is older by the better part of a century.
The first khaki trousers were made in 1846, when a British officer serving in the Punjab region traded his company’s hot wool trousers and jackets for lighter cloth and looser cuts made from native cotton. He dyed them with a native plant called mazari, which produced a dusty tan color that the locals called “khaki.”
The colonial military stationed in India adopted khakis as their uniform trouser by 1848, and it spread through the rest of the British Empire until the entire British army formally adopted the style as their uniform in 1884.
A Quick History of Chinos
Much of the confusion between khakis and chinos can be traced to the origin of the latter style: “chinos” were khakis, of a sort.
Chino cloth was a lightweight twill weave from China (hence the name). The British and French military were both using chino to make their khaki uniform trousers by the latter half of the 19th century.
When American soldiers serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war needed uniform trousers, they found it cheaper and quicker to import from China rather than the United States. Their trousers were made simple and tapered, without pleated fronts, to save on cloth costs, resulting in a smooth, simple style.
The same basic style was used for uniform trousers during World War One, and returning soldiers from both wars brought them into civilian settings. University students, in particular, took to chinos after WWI, and they have been part of the fashion landscape ever since.
So there’s your basic breakdown: khakis originated as a broad category of military trousers, and one specific subset of them evolved into chinos. Buyers have been confused ever since!
But broadly speaking, if you think of khakis as thicker, more squared-off garments, and of chinos as slimmer, more tapered and dressier pants, you’re in the right ballpark. Good luck!