A Complete Chino Encyclopedia
Written by: Charles Shoultz Illustration by: Matthew Miller (@sunflowerMatt)

Chinos: A Comprehensive Guide

The chino pant spent much of the last twenty years being abused and maligned, its status reaching a nadir in the 1990s as it was warped into a baggy, triple-pleated mess worn by desperate Baby Boomers trying to strike a terrible balance on Casual Friday. Gladly, times have changed, and chinos have changed also- for the better.  With better fits, better construction, and more varieties than you can swing a spinning wheel at, the chino pant has enjoyed a renaissance that all on its own may be the most impressive aspect of the revival of menswear.  Indeed, where chinos were once incredibly limited, today there are so many options and features that a man can be daunted considering them all.  Herewith, we present a guide for chinos for the 21st Century gentleman.

Khaki is not, strictly speaking, a pant or a fabric, but rather a color.

First things first…

Chino and khaki are terms that are often used interchangeably, with the latter being broadly applied to the former.  This is incorrect, and in the interest of precision we shall set the matter straight.  Chino refers to the fabric that such pants are made of, which itself is called ‘chino.’  It is a twill fabric of 100% cotton, densely woven and tough.  It originated, like so many great menswear innovations, in the military, as a hard-wearing cloth for soldiers’ uniforms in the Spanish-American War.  Its actual origins are probably somewhere in China, which lent it its English language name: ‘chino’ means ‘Chinese’ in Spanish.

Khaki is not, strictly speaking, a pant or a fabric, but rather a color, first brewed by Sir Harry Lumsden for the British Corps of Guides in India in 1848.  Described by some as a mixture of coffee, curry powder, and mulberry juice, Lumsden’s blend was used to replace the brighter, louder colors that British troops usually wore, which stuck out like a sore thumb in the Indian bush.  The word itself comes from the Persian word for ‘dust.’

So, while many chinos are khaki colored, not all khaki pants are chinos, and not all chinos are khaki colored.

Varieties: Chinos come in all sorts of fits these days: skinny, slim, classic, relaxed, loose.  A man can choose the style that fits him best, that reflects his body type, his level of fitness, and his desire for comfort over style or vice versa.  But there are three broad types of chinos that prevail today.

Dress: These are the most formal of chinos, though chinos in themselves are an inherently casual garment.  Their seams will be on the inside of the leg, the pockets will be closed up, and sleekness will be the prevailing quality of the pant.  They are a good fit for the office, worn under a sport coat with a dress shirt and tie on casual Fridays.  Because really, chinos and an odd jacket are as ‘casual’ as the office should ever be.

Casual: For true casual chinos, look for some in a slightly rougher weave, with five pockets like on blue jeans, and most tellingly, the stitching of the seam on the outside of the pant leg.  These are knock around pants, good for weekends off, paired with sweatshirts or polo shirts or even t-shirts.  A t-shirt and chinos is very Steve McQueen, so don’t hesitate to give the look a spin.

Cargo Pants: Finally, for something as far from the office as you can get, try out chino cargo pants.  You probably remember cargo pants from their days being hawked in Abercrombie & Fitch.  Lately, however, they’ve taken on a more upscale attitude, with brands such as Isaia and Brunello Cucinelli turning out multi-pocket pants in the finest of fabrics and the most vibrant of colors.  You can use these when you’re outdoors- building, hunting, fishing – or be daring.  Wear them in the city with a sport coat for a high-low look straight from the streets of Pitti Uomo. See these slimmed down cargo pants from Gant above. 

Colors: As mentioned before, chinos are so habitually found in the color khaki that the one and the other have become virtually indistinguishable.  These days, however, chinos can be found in nearly every color of the rainbow, from vibrant red to bright yellow to deep green to even pink, if you look around hard enough.  It would be impossible to list all the colors that chinos come in these days, so we’ll merely group them by general category and give you some guidelines for each.

Warm Colors: Colors like red, orange, yellow and their derivatives.  These pants are more summery, though when they are shaded in deeper, more complex hues they can make quite an imp-

ression in the fall.  They are also inherently more casual, not the pant you should wear in an office or work setting.  But on the weekends, feel free to indulge in their brilliance.  In fact, wear some red or yellow pants with a white shirt and a navy blazer for a seriously preppy look. See these Aros chinos  above.

Cool Colors: Hues like blue, green, purple and their various shades.  These are more office-friendly; navy chinos can work well under a gray sport coat with a white shirt.  Deep green deserves special mention here, as it is a very old money, hunting lodge sort of shade.  It works best with tweed jackets in the fall.  Purple, meanwhile, is for the bold, for those who want to make a statement but don’t want to shout as they might with warm colors. See these Jet Blue khakis from Bonobos to the right:

Neutral Colors: White, brown, gray, and of course, khaki.  Arguably the most versatile colors that pants can come in, these shades can be used as a base upon which other colors and textures will be piled.  Gray pants are of course a classic companion to a navy blazer or other dark sport coat.  White pants serve as a good base also, and are surprisingly easy to wear, even in fall and winter- despite what some say. See these vintage natural chinos from Gant Rugger above:

Black: Very, very difficult.  Black, as a rule, goes with almost nothing but more black, so if you must wear black pants, consider a white shirt and nothing else.  Usually, we recommend that black pants only be worn when they are part of a black suit. See the black chinos below from Club Monaco

The versatility of chinos makes them a wardrobe staple for all seasons. Hopefully this article steers you in the right direction for all your chino-related sartorial expeditions. 

(For more tips on styling your chinos, see our Cuff Rolling 101 piece).

Charles Shoultz is a menswear writer based in Houston, Texas.

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