Written by: Orvis Staff
We’ve all heard both terms—“khakis” and “chinos”—used interchangeably to describe the same pants. But there are actually distinct characteristics that make each pant a style of its own—even if the differences are subtle. This made us wonder, do most folks know the difference between chino pants and khaki pants? And does it matter? Let’s see.
What Makes Chinos Different From Khakis?
The three main differences lie in the tailoring and thus the personality of the pants, and in the fabric used to make them.
With their more recent military uniform heritage, chino pants earned a more formal style than khakis. One of the distinct differences between the two, and an easy trick to use when shopping or pairing an outfit, is the stitching. On khakis, the stitching is visible, whereas it is concealed on chinos. This gives chino pants a more finished look, which in turn makes them a little dressier.
The second, less obvious and less reliable rule of thumb for telling the difference between the two, is the weight of the fabric. Chino pants are often made of a lightweight 100% cotton or cotton-blend fabric in a tighter weave, while khakis are often constructed of a heavyweight 100% cotton twill fabric. You probably wouldn’t wear your chinos to do yard work, whereas you might your khakis.
Third, chino pants are often cut slimmer with a closer fit than khakis, adding to their dressier appeal. The fuller cut of khakis arguably makes them more comfortable and versatile.
Should I Choose Khakis or Chinos?
It depends. Beyond the basic differences between chinos and khakis there are a few other distinguishing traits that may help you decide which type of pants to choose for specific venues or occasions.
- Chinos come in a wider range of colors than khakis. Traditionally available only in a lighter shade of tan than khakis—closer to a cream color—these days chinos come in a variety of colors. This variety gives you more seasonal styling options.
- Khaki-style pants have pronounced pockets; chino pockets are hidden. Concealed pockets add to the dressier demeanor of chinos, but both styles can be found in wrinkle-free designs.
- Most chinos have flat fronts; khakis can be flat or pleated. This is purely a matter of personal preference, but in general, a pleated pant is more traditional. Pleats also help balance your proportions if you carry extra weight in your mid section, or if you are broad-shouldered. A flat front is a more modern pant silhouette that tends to flatter a slimmer body type.
- Both styles can be dressed up with a nice shirt and blazer. Both khakis and chinos are a better choice than jeans for dressier occasions and they’re both considered “business casual.” These days, many people wear either style to work.
Khakis vs Slacks: Is There a Difference?
Depends whom you ask, but we’re saying yes. The term ‘slacks’ originates in the Old English slæc, meaning lazy, or unhurried, related to the Latin term laxus, meaning loose. So in its earliest guise, ‘slacks’ referred to loose objects in general, specifically sailing gear (think sails and ropes), but later came to refer to the gentlemen’s garment, which was tailored to fit loose, or slack. Over time, though, the term ‘slacks’ evolved to mean dressy instead of casual pants, an important nuance. Because khaki pants possess a decidedly casual nature, we must distinguish them from the likes of the dressier wool or wool-blend slacks you’d typically wear with a suit, for example.
Are Chinos Formal?
No, chinos—both pants and shorts—are neither formal nor casual, but lie on a continuum somewhere between the two. While we won’t call them formal, we will say they dress up well when you need them to. Like their khaki cousins, chinos look more polished paired with a crisp Oxford pinpoint button-front and a blazer, and both pant styles look fetching with the right belt.
Can Khakis Be Black?
Yes: While the term ‘khaki’ refers both to the pant style and its traditional “soil” color, modern khaki pants come in many colors, including black. Chinos also come in a variety of colors, but the essential chino colors to consider adding to your wardrobe include creamy beige, navy, and other neutrals.
Are Khakis Out of Style?
No, quite to the contrary, khaki pants have made a big comeback among the sartorial-minded in recent years. The term may dredge up images of the stodgy pants your dad or granddad wore, but today’s khakis feature a distinctly cleaner cut that’s more flattering than their forebears, in a versatile pant style that steps up to the plate when denim won’t do.
A Brief History of Khakis and Chinos
Khakis were originally adopted as the military uniform of British officers in northern Colonial India in the mid-19th century. The word itself—khaki—comes from the Persian word for dust, used to describe the uniform’s drab color. Worn by various swashbuckling characters in famous Hollywood adventure movies, including the likes of Indiana Jones, khaki clothing has been memorialized through history and in popular culture.
Chinos originated in the military as well, during the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. The lightweight cotton twill uniforms produced in China were modeled after the earlier uniforms described above. And, as one might guess, the name chino comes from Spanish slang for “China.” But in an effort to conserve cloth, the pants were designed with tapered legs, and without pleats or pockets. The result was a more streamlined fit that has endured over time.
Fast forward to the present and it’s clear both styles of pants have been adopted as a sort of civilian uniform by the masses, a natty alternative to jeans. The bottom line is, whatever you want to call them or however you prefer to describe them, neither khaki pants nor chinos will ever go out of style.
Now that you know the differences, what do you prefer—chinos or khakis?