It seems like a silly thing to say, “chinos are cool” – but is it? I’d exhaust myself recounting the number of times I’ve seen inept, antiquated, or otherwise malicious fictional characters wearing horrible looking chinos: from the hapless dad, to the nerdy virgin, to the old, shrewd businessman who sits in the corner of a prestigious country club, laughing, cigar in mouth, at the poor mobs who toil away. Like dark clothes on the bad guy, chinos have come to serve as a calling card for certain unsavory sentiments. And if you take a peek into any American office, you’ll inevitably see guys who are completely out of touch with what’s tasteful or classic, wearing baggy and pleated chinos that might as well be sails with pockets. It’s not the fault of chinos, though; it’s the manner in which they are worn by most men and then portrayed by the media that has morphed their image for the worse. Chinos themselves were and still are the epitome of American cool.
And for the knowledge of the unwashed masses, chinos are cotton (or cotton blend) trousers – typically in some shade of khaki, white, or olive – that have a generally higher rise and are worn with a tucked shirt. Contrary to popular belief, 5 pockets or tan jeans and corduroys are NOT chinos and should be treated as separate entities. To elaborate on this and their legitimate coolness, look no further than the American military.
“Khaki” uniforms (a simple khaki collared shirt and chinos, as pictured above) and the American Army during World War 2 are veritably intertwined within America’s collective, historical memory. While the history of khakis predates their use by Americans, their function by these soldiers was for both dress and combat, and from World War 2 until Vietnam, khakis were standard issue for tropical use. They were durable, drab in color for effective camouflage, and lightweight enough to keep cool in combat; they truly served their purpose and a connection was fostered between soldier and uniform through the annals of war, leaving a lasting, national image.
Once the war in the Pacific was won and these men returned home, the bottom half of their uniforms in the form of the chino pant entered their renewed civilian life. Veterans wore them for their immediacy and inherent simplicity while students across the country in the 1950s and ’60s took queues from these men and soon sought chinos themselves, easily finding them in surplus stores. Many veterans as well began to attend college with GI Bills and they inevitably wore their chinos on campus; this further augmented their popularity among fellow students who dictated fashion, as evidenced by the “Ivy League” style of the time.
In that period, chinos evolved from a simple piece of military hardware into something for which civilians clamored, instantly becoming an American cultural staple. Ordinary people wanted to wear them and the fashion industry quickly answered their demands. Virtually every maker and manufacturer at the time began advertising and selling some type of chino. Even though original issue Army khakis were roomy in accordance with military standards of the time, companies slimmed down and modernized them in the process of commercialization; these re-styled, simple cotton trousers developed into a nation-wide phenomena and dominated the sartorial landscape of America for years.
And it really was their versatility that made them so popular. In fact: is there any piece of clothing quite like the chino pant? When an item can seamlessly function in both war and in your home, there must be something to it.
To this point, chinos are not relegated to specific seasons or events – they are appropriate for any and all of them. They’ll take you to work, then carry you to a dinner date, and then serve you equally as well once the day is done while lounging around. There are various weaves and weights for yearly use, ranging from heavy twills for the winter and poplin for the summer. The multitude of colors – oyster, British tan, khaki, white, olive, stone – work perfectly with a range of shirts; I myself have worn the same chinos with a polo, a madras button down, and an oxford button-down and never missed a step. In my opinion, chinos are on their own in the realm of universality.
And while you can just wear them with a shirt and some chukkas, all it takes to dip into more formal waters is the addition of an extra layer over your shoulders in the form of a sweater, a simple jacket, or a sport coat. Their ubiquitous nature is unto itself, as when you wear them you’ll never be under-dressed (if you also wear a jacket) or even over-dressed as chinos and a collared shirt allow for a subtle informality that isn’t found with other sorts of trousers.
But somewhere along the way they became “stiff” and “dorky.” This attitude stemmed from anti-establishment cultural shifts, resulting in the maligning of traditional aspects of society via the media, specifically TV and film. The “man” who toils away in an office and then wears an OCBD and chinos about town evolved into a fogey who was unwilling to change with the times, clinging to the past with a white-knuckled grip. Young people who might continue to dress in this way were labelled nerds accordingly.
Look at the pictures above from Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and the 40 Year Old Virgin (2005): both are from radically different eras, but our “heroes” are as equally socially awkward in both dress and mannerisms. Their clothes are distorted transmutations from a past generation, worn by outdated characters who have no clue what is hip and fashionable; in specific, chinos are the visual queue for the dork at whom we should laugh and assuredly not admire.
Yet, there still are contemporary chinos that don’t fit into this mold and are indeed worth buying. The chinos most men wear, though, are often too baggy, pleated (pleats are indefinitely a no-go for classic American chinos), have a rise that’s invariably short, or are far too tight. For a pair that’s both classic and appropriate, fit is tantamount; a natural rise and gentle taper will flatter anyone, despite what contemporary fashionistas might say. There’s also a folly in seeking something overly slim as these aren’t even chinos, but too-tight pants that are akin to off-white jeans and 5 pocket pants. After all, the point of chinos is to create a bridge between casual pants like jeans with that of more formal pants like gray wool trousers.
You don’t have to copy these chinos worn by icons of the past, but there is a reason they looked so cool… a trim cut with a higher rise gives better proportions regardless of your height and weight, and they simply are more comfortable when worn. Likewise, don’t heed what others will say about your “grandpa” pants – a pejorative I’ve seen hurled at someone wearing chinos with a proper rise. If wearing proper chinos makes one an old man, sign me up because I’ll be in pretty good company, very cool company I might add.
P.S. If you want to get some great chinos, I suggest, as always, O’Connell’s, Bill’s Khakis, J.PRESS, and Howard Yount. Some of these might not have enough taper, but I’d recommend just taking them to your tailor if you wish. After all, it’s impossible to get a higher rise out of chinos with good taper, but immensely easy to taper those with a good rise.