To get to the origin of the Chino, we must travel back to the history of its predecessor and doppelganger: khakis.
The word “khaki” comes from the Hindi word meaning “dusty-colored.” Khaki-colored cotton pants first appeared in 1846. British Lieutenant Sir Harry Lumsden was putting together an army using British Indian recruits from Peshawar, Pakistan. Lumsden thought they would be more comfortable in their native cultural attire: a cotton smock, pajama trousers and jacket. The original uniforms were made from home-spun cotton and dyed in mazari (a native palm) and mulberry juice, which gave the cotton a yellow-ish hue.
Khakis in its current cotton twill form first appeared in the United States Army during the Spanish-American war of 1898 when the U.S. Army occupied the Philippines. Some say that the soldiers called the comfortable khaki trousers, chino, derived from the Spanish word for China, because the twill cloth was woven in China or the pants were made in China. During this time, military uniforms were all made in China and based on British khakis.
It’s said that the Chinese manufacturers made alterations on the original British design to conserve cloth, such as changing the original pleated-front design to a flat front, having fewer pockets and tapering the legs. The fabric was also lighter weight than the British khakis to keep the soldiers cool in the Philippine humidity and heat.
Somewhere along the way, khaki forks in the road. Because of the variations in plant-based and natural dyes and the desire for uniforms to be more camouflaged, khaki coloring evolved darker. Sometime around 1902 when khaki was adopted for the continental British Service Dress, the shade was shifting to the green spectrum of the color wheel. This “olive drab” green became the standard by all the British Empire armies and the U.S forces in World War I. By WWII, the olive hue totally flipped to the current olive green.
Post-WWII, soldiers came back from the war and continued to wear their military attire as citizen clothing. In the late 1940s and 1950s, pleated dress pants were all the rage, but there was a wide divide between professional attire and weekend wear. Flat-front, cotton twill chinos entered the closet to become a smart look for men. Just as James Dean and Steve McQueen were icons for the hunky T-shirt and jean-wearing alternative youth, they too incorporated light-colored chinos.
The terms chinos and khakis are somewhat interchangeable. Both are made with cotton, or cotton polyester twill fabric, which is woven in a 3x1 twill like most denims and has the same distinctive diagonal lines as its blue sibling. The durable material is a coup for military uniforms because it’s tougher than regular weaves, less prone to wrinkling, and usually lighter weight than denim. But while khaki refers to a broad range of cotton twill pants in the khaki range of color, the word chinos is used strictly with a dressier connotation. Think, all chinos are khakis, but not all khakis are chinos.
Chinos experienced resurgence during the 1990s for the very same reason that it was popular back in the 1950s. Coming off the 1980s power-suit era of pleated trousers, flat front chinos modeled off the original military styles had Casual Friday written all over it. Chinos popped up by Tommy Hilfiger, CK Calvin Klein, Gap and Dockers collections. Gap drove the point home with its ad campaign in 1993 called “Who Wore Khakis.” Nostalgic black-and-white vintage photographs of Steve McQueen, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol in the trousers proved that chinos were up there with denim as an iconic American casualwear staple.