Both chinos and khakis are incredibly popular among men of all ages because of their versatility, comfort and longevity. Unlike dark denim or suit trousers, a pair of either chinos or khakis can be worn with a huge variety of different clothes, dressing them up to look smart or down to become more casual.
But one of the most common mistakes in mens fashion is when people use the words chinos and khakis interchangeably. Manufacturers are guilty of this too which exasperates the problem, but in fact the two types of pants do have noticeable differences and if you are shopping with a knowledgable manufacturer then each pant has its strengths and weaknesses.
Chinos vs Khakis: What’s the Difference?
This question is asked repeatedly on style forums across the web and while there have been some good attempts to answer it most fall into relying on history rather than contemporary reality. Therefore, we will first answer the question in a realistic manner that will help you choose pants and then later will cover the origins and historical differences.
In general you can characterize the pants as such:
Khakis are made out of a thick material that is rugged and will be durable in even harsher conditions. The leg of the pant is straight, there is no tapering of any kind and usually they are relatively baggy when compared to most other types of pant. You’ll also find that most khakis have a large cuff at the bottom of the hem.
Chinos on the other hand are significantly lighter, ideal for warmer climates where khakis would be too thick. The chino is usually tapered heavily from the knee through to the ankle, with room on the thigh and waist. Unlike khakis which are often pleated, the majority of chinos are flat fronted which is more common in contemporary mens fashion.
Both chinos and khakis are constructed from cotton twill that is dyed with a cream or tan color, in most cases, which makes it difficult to distinguish between them. This problem is worsened by manufacturers negligently choosing a name with no regard to the construction of the pant.
But in reality it should make little difference to you when you are shopping so long as you know the visual differences and what you are looking for. In general, khakis are thicker and ideal for casual outfits, while chinos are dressier and because of their thinner construction are perfect for warmer weather.
When you’re choosing between the two types of pants the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want to wear with them and in what context you will wear them. For example; if you are looking for pants to go with a button-down shirt for work then chinos are best, but for a cookout in your polo shirt a pair of khakis makes more sense.
How to Wear Khakis
Khakis are incredibly versatile but when you’re picking between them and chinos you need to have a decent idea of what you plan to wear with them so that you can make that choice easier. Khakis are slightly more casual and that makes them ideal for wearing with t-shirts, casual polos and patterned shirts that you can wear untucked.
The key to wearing khakis stylishly is to avoid clashing too heavily between smart and casual, if you are looking for a smarter look then it’s best to choose a chino. Instead, match your khakis with other garments that have a comfortable and generous fit like t-shirts, polos and sweaters.
Paul Newman is known especially for his combination of dust or tan khakis with an oversized wool sweater. This look will always be classic, even JFK wore it regularly because its casual without looking sloppy.
Perhaps the hardest part of picking a pair of khakis is deciding on the color that you want, in contemporary stores you’ll find everything from dusk to bright red. In most cases it’s best to stick with what has always worked, light dust and tan shades are versatile and timeless.
While colored pants aren’t necessarily bad they are going to limit the other clothes that you can wear with them and that defeats the point of these pants which are designed to be utilitarian.
How to Wear Chinos
Chinos are only slightly different but the tapered cut, lack of cuffs and flat-front make them more fashionable in this era and this opens up more possibilities for what you can wear them with. Steve McQueen is the poster boy of chinos, wearing them practically everywhere, even in the movies that he was shooting.
McQueen managed to combine these pants with everything from torn and oversized sweaters through to leather jackets and wool blazers. For this reason chinos should be a staple in every mans wardrobe, they can go with practically anything and still look stylish.
However, if you look around your local area you’ll see plenty of guys wearing these pants and looking unkempt. Steve McQueen kept it simple, it was almost always a traditional light dust color, comfortable through the thigh and tapered from the knee to the ankle with a tight leg hole that didn’t swamp his shoes.
When it comes to chinos the fit is vital, this isn’t the case with khakis because of the loose and generous cut, but with chinos you need a more exact fit to look good. Springing for a more expensive pant that will last you years is a good investment, as is tailoring a pair that is slightly loose or long for your legs.
In the above photo you can see McQueen pairing a light pair of pants with a vivid moss colored sweater and brown suede chukka boots. This look is casual without looking sloppy, combining chinos with a smart-casual shoe and a timeless sweater.
On the other hand, he’s often seen wearing the exact same chinos with a blazer and collared shirt, showing how versatile they can be.
History of Khakis
Although you’ll see stores listing khakis as chinos and vice versa, when you look at the history of the two garments it’s evident that there is a substantial difference. This pair of pants were originally popularized by the British military after their members serving in India swapped out their heavy wool pants for a lighter material that was common in the area.
These lighter pants were made out of a cotton that was grown in the area and was worn by the locals. They dyed the garments with a plant that grows natively in India called mazari, this gives them their traditional dusty tan color which the locals call “khaki”, a word that originates from the Urdu word for “dust”, an accurate color description.
Coming from a military background these garments needed to be durable, holding up in a battle and therefore they needed to still use a thick cotton twill. Similarly, the loose and straight cut was nearly identical to previous military garments, hence the pleated front and cuffs which would look the same as the wool they wore before.
History of Chinos
Soon after their discovery by the British Military, demand for khaki pants across the world boomed. Not only were military men wearing them when they returned to civilian life but they gained popularity as a fashionable, lightweight pant that could easily be dressed up or down.
But khakis weren’t the cheapest pants to make because of the thickness and instead the British and French militaries looked to China for a cheaper alternative. There they found chino cloth, a more lightweight twill which looks and feels similar to the cotton used in traditional khakis, but that is available for a fraction of the cost.
This cheaper alternative quickly spread and before the end of the 19th century most military uniforms used chino cloth instead of cotton. But records suggest that these pants would have still been made in the style of a khaki, it wasn’t until American soldiers serving in Asia during the Spanish-American war faced the same issue that the modern day chino was developed.
Rather than waiting for shipments from US manufacturers the military sourced their pants from China, choosing the simplest and most cost effective option they could find. This decision resulted in a flat-fronted pant that was tapered and without cuffs.
These pants used less material than the British Military khaki, needed less time to create and therefore was ideal for the soldiers fighting in the Philippines. Plus, because chino cloth is more lightweight than cotton it kept the men cool in the tropical Philippines weather.
If You Can Only Have One, Which Should it Be?
Plenty of guys are looking at chinos vs khakis to try and decide which is best, either because they only need one more pair of pants or because of a tight budget. Either way, making this decision will depend on what the rest of your wardrobe is like, how you prefer to look and where you usually hangout.
The khaki is a practical pair of pants that is casual and goes well with more relaxed fitting clothes, you can wear them in the garden, on your boat or even in casual office settings. Chinos on the other hand are dressier, they fit tighter and are considerably more stylish when combined with smart casual shirts and boots.
However, you can dress down a chino easier than you can dress up a khaki, which is why for most men a pair of chinos is the best choice. As far color you can’t go wrong with a traditional shade of light dust or tan, straying too far from this is going to reduce the versatility of the pants.
For most men a pair of chinos that are comfortable in the thigh and taper to a small leg hole, in a light dust or tan color will expand your wardrobe immensely. You can wear these with the vast majority of your tops and sweaters, extending your range of outfits significantly with just one extra pair of pants.