Chinos: An American Style Story

The rise of a former military essential turned fashion icon

The predecessor of the chino was developed by Sir Harry Lumsden in 1848 while stationed in India to camouflage his white uniform. He mixed a combination of coffee, curry and mulberries for dye, and this new shade, dubbed khaki (the Hindi word for “dust”), blended into the arid setting. Although now used interchangeably with “chino,” khaki refers to the dye color Lumsden created.

The first reference to chinos came in 1898, when American armed forces were stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and their uniforms were sourced from Chinese twill cotton. This colloquial term was born from the Spanish name for “China.” 

After World War II, returning GIs began wearing the plain-front trousers, and chinos were a common sight on college campuses, where they began to define the East Coast, Ivy League aesthetic. Hollywood soon followed, leading a generation to define chinos as a symbol of effortlessly cool American style.

The boxy fits and casual Friday culture of the 1980s and ’90s sidelined chinos; however, they’ve made a comeback, with slimmer fits and fresh garment-dye colors. What was once standard issue for the military is now the style of choice for the board meeting or the wedding party.