Chinos vs. Khakis - What’s Actually the Difference?
Chic and comfortable, a smart pair of casual pants that fit well and feel great is an easy way to elevate your day-to-day look to new heights. Men looking for a simple but well-put-together addition to their wardrobe have both khakis and chinos open to them- but what’s the difference between them? Although these two styles of men’s pants look similar, they are subtly different (much like the nuances between a blazer and a sports coat), and on which occasions, each suit will vary. Fortunately, the expert tailors of the Oliver Wicks team are here today to walk you through everything you need to know about chinos vs. khakis and how to wear them with flair!
Chinos and Khakis are both men’s casualwear, although they have also leaked over into women’s fashion in recent years. At a glance, they are very similar, but in a nutshell:
- Chinos are more form-fitting, although not ultra-tight, and are dressier than khakis. They typically disguise or minimize the seams and construction details. This makes them a better choice for semi-formal looks, whereas khakis will only ever fit into a true casual environment. That’s not to say that you can’t wear chinos casually - You totally can, and it’s a great look.
- Technically speaking, khakis are also… well, khaki in color, whereas chinos come in a wider variety of colors. However, the ‘khaki’ style is now found in different shades, too, so don’t judge on that alone. Khakis aren’t shy to emphasize little details (like pockets) through the stitching, are more rugged than chinos, and have a looser, but not sloppy, fit.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Chinos are a more form-fitting, slightly smarter choice of pants with a flat front. You will find them in bold, saturated colors with a wide variety, and they fit seamlessly into semi-formal situations. These would be your go-to casual pants for a day in a business-casual office, a dinner party or date, a night on the town, or even a non-formal wedding.
They’re typically made from lightweight woven cotton. Today you will find cotton blends and even fully synthetic options, of course. However, while synthetics may be cheaper, they also wear less well, pick up lint and hair more easily, and don’t breathe like cotton, so you’re always best opting for the natural fiber. Luckily, this lightweight-yet-robust design means they don’t crease easily. Think of them as the comfortable, slightly less formal cousins of proper dress pants. They’re a great option to wear with a blazer outfit, and that’s a popular approach, as it saves wear and tear with your suit pants that belong to another jacket.
Khakis, on the other hand, are best thought of as an alternative to jeans. They’ll fit perfectly into a casual dinner, lunch with good friends, or to look smart when in transit, but don’t have the fit or style for more formal functions. They actually have a similar fit to cargo pants- loose but not baggy- and often feature emphasized details on the pockets and belt loops. Khakis typically have cuffs, too, unlike chinos. You’ll find pleated front and flat front khakis, so that’s a matter of personal style. While most khakis are found in shades of earthy brown, you’ll also find black and navy options today.
The fabric is also 100% cotton twill but a far heavier weave than for chinos. Unluckily, this heavier fabric weight means ironing is usually needed, but khakis otherwise make a great option for traveling with a little flair.
As we’ve already noted, chinos should be your default go-to option for smarter occasions, whereas khakis lend a little elegance to causal functions. That doesn’t make chinos a truly ‘dressy’ option, however. Some people will even argue that they’re not appropriate for a wedding or smart evening dinner date. However, dark chinos, paired with an elegant sports coat and smart shirt, will usually make the grade anywhere a full suit or dress pants aren’t expected.
Khakis can be elevated a little with the addition of a smart button-down shirt or crisp polo but are best kept to rather casual daytime activities all the same. They also make a surprisingly robust choice for occasions where you may need to do some physical labor- think team-building exercises or simply for a man who likes to look good while gardening. They would also be a fantastic choice for men who need to balance a more sophisticated dress style with the need to do day-to-day work- think of an engineering supervisor who needs to be able to step on-site in a hard hat as easily as handle his daily office work. It should be noted, however, that due to their history as ‘working men’s pants,’ chinos are not suitable for high-end office-only environments or functions where utmost formality is needed.
Talking about history, how did these two classic men’s pant styles come to be?
Khakis have a longer history, originating from warfare in the time of the British Empire. While iconic, the ‘redcoat’ that once characterized the British Armed Forces was an unmitigated disaster in tropical environments like India. Needing something more practical, airy, and better suited to the heavily forested environment, the khaki was invented in Punjab in 1846, when they traded the traditional heavy wool for the lighter, more breathable, and local cotton. The name khaki, in fact, is an Urdu loan word referring to the dusty color gained from local dyes! By 1884, the khaki pant was the official dress of the British Army.
As with so much of the classy man’s wardrobe, chinos also have a militaristic origin. Instead of the European armed forces, however, we have the American army of the early 20th century to thank for these smart casual pants, specifically those serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. It was simpler to import Chinese fabrics instead of waiting for shipments from home. They were deliberately intended to conserve fabric, hence the closer fit and slim stylings. While you won’t often see the term used in fabric today, chino is technically the name of the light cotton twill they are made from.
Soldiers returning from the first World War introduced both styles to the general public, and after gaining some popularity among university students, they gained fantastic cultural traction. Because they were easy to mass produce at a time when this method of production was first becoming popular, khakis specifically were marketed to the working man of the 50s and 60s. They are seen as something of the ‘uniform’ of the working masses due to this. Coupled with the looser fit, this is the reason chinos have breached the smart-casual barrier, while khakis have not.
Spend a lot of time browsing menswear, and you’ll eventually come across the befuddling 'khaki chino’. Since these are two different styles of men’s pants, what does this really mean?
Often, it’s simply a misuse of the term as something of an umbrella for casual men’s pants. You may refer to any tissue as a ‘Kleenex.’ You’ll have to visually evaluate whether the pants themselves lean more towards the khaki or the chino style before deciding where to wear them. However, remember that khaki is also color- you may just be looking at the distinctive light brown in a chino style, too. Here you can see an example of pants you may see described as ‘khaki chinos’ from the Oliver Wicks collection!
Both khakis and chinos have a spot in an elegant man’s wardrobe, but you are likely to find yourself leaning more into chinos than khakis for most practical occasions. Knowing how to spot the differences between these two very similar styles will help you gain confidence in styling yourself perfectly for any occasion- and now you know exactly how to do that! If you have to choose between owning khakis or chinos, you’ll get more mileage out of chinos, as they’re the more versatile choice.
Remember, if you’re keen to up your style game even further, our newsletter is packed with tips and tricks to help you make the most of yourself and your body, dressing smartly for any occasion, and you can sign up to have our helpful tips delivered straight to your inbox from any page on our site! After all, the Oliver Wicks motto is, ‘the fit that suits you.’ No matter your physical quirks or personal taste, every man deserves a smart, functional wardrobe that makes him look his very best- and it’s not as hard to create as you may have thought, either!
If you’re still puzzled by these casual cousins or have any other questions relating to men’s style, you’re always welcome to reach out to the Oliver Wicks team at email@example.com- we’re always happy to help!