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As ubiquitous as they are, mens chinos have an intriguing back story that spans continents and centuries. It kicks off with ‘khaki’, a word so often used in reference to chinos for men. The year is 1848, and realising his troops’ bright white uniforms are dangerously conspicuous in the Bengal sun, Brigadier General Sir Harry Lumsden concocts a dye of berries, coffee and curry to help the men blend in with their surroundings. It turns their pristine livery the perfect shade of sandy beige, and the resulting colour is given the Hindi name for dust. Khaki. Right there, the first connection with mens chinos was established.
The baton then passed to the American military, stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Their uniforms were dubbed ‘pantalones chinos’ – ‘Chinese trousers’, aptly enough, since the cotton twill they were made from was manufactured in China. See where we’re heading? Before long the Spanish nickname was shortened to chinos.
It took several decades for truly recognisable chinos for men to pass into everyday wear, following active service in WWII. Famously the US army uniform was built around crisp, plain front khakis – parade ground smart, endlessly durable and practical to a fault. War over, the returning GIs adopted these trousers as they returned to civilian life, heading back to university to resume their studies and creating another uniform in the process: a stylishly understated combination of chinos, buttondown shirt and loafers that swiftly became the signature look of the Ivy League prepster.
Roll around the 1950s and 60s, and things get really big. When it comes to propelling mens chinos into the stratosphere, we have Hollywood to thank for bringing preppy style to millions of guys the world over. Marlon Brando, Alain Delon, Steve McQueen to name a few: the silver screen’s most iconic actors were all sporting khakis, exuding a cool new kind of laissez faire that would leave a deep, lasting imprint in sartorial history. Young men sat up and took note; you didn’t need a suit to look good. Suddenly the trousers you once had to look for in army surplus stores could now be found in department stores, and chinos for men had made it to the mainstream.