Chinos have long been a staple of American menswear. And if you know what you’re doing, incorporating a pair of chinos into your daily uniform is one of the best ways to both be appropriately dressed for a wide range of occasions, and to move beyond trends to dress in a way that’s timeless.
As a post in the Brooks Brothers magazine reports, the predecessor of today’s chinos was developed by Sir Harry Lumsden in 1848. Lumsden was stationed in India, and needed a way to camouflage his white uniform. So he mixed coffee, curry, and mulberries for dye, and the new shade was dubbed khaki, the Hindi word for “dust.” The first reference to chinos appeared in 1898, when American forces were stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Their uniforms were constructed of Chinese twill cotton, and the term “chinos” was born from the Spanish name for China.
After the second World War, returning soldiers and airmen continued to wear the trousers, which also became popular on the campuses of American universities. Chinos went on to play an integral role in defining the East Coast, Ivy League aesthetic, and Hollywood adopted them as a symbol of American style.
As Derek points out at Put This On, one of the greatest benefits of chinos is that they look better with age, and they’re best worn “with a bit of a rumple” and without a crease down the front of the leg. As Derek writes, “Creases on chinos add fifteen years to your age and can make you look like the type that irons your underwear.”
Here’s the lowdown on how to find a pair of chinos that makes you look like the classically stylish guy you know you are.
1. Find your fit
Finding a pair of chinos that fits correctly can take some effort — more for some guys than others — that goes beyond the simple quest for which numerical size is the most comfortable. You probably know your waist measurement and inseam (though if you don’t, you need to figure them out ASAP). When you walk into a store to try on a pair of chinos, don’t stop at a single pair. Investigate the different cuts that the brand offers, and try on different sizes in each to determine which gets you closest to the goal of a trim but comfortable silhouette. For most guys, that will be a slim-cut version or a straight-leg model. Always look for 100% cotton, and whichever cut you choose, make sure to avoid pleats.
When determining the exact cut you want in a pair of chinos, think about how and where you’re hoping to wear them. A pair of chinos meant mostly for casual days can feature a washed or worn aesthetic, and likely a low rise. (Think of Ralph Lauren’s garment-dyed cotton chinos as an example.) A pair meant for rugged work conditions should be constructed of heavy fabric. (A good example is RRL’s military style chinos, which are made of 10.8-ounce Japanese cotton twill.) And a pair meant for appearances at the office should feature a smooth fabric, clean lines, and perhaps a higher rise to correspond with the level where you’d usually wear suit trousers. (Look for a style like NN. 07’s mid-rise cotton-twill chinos, for instance.)
2. Figure out your style
A big part of figuring out which are the perfect chinos for you is determining what color you want. Chinos are often referred to as “khakis” for a reason: shades of tan, ranging from light to dark, are the most popular color for the style. Lighter shades often look more casual, so go with a darker tan if you’re planning to wear your pair around the office. (Look at these examples from Gant Rugger, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, ETRO, and J. Crew for a range of different shades of tan.) Other classic colors that are likely to go with everything in your wardrobe include navy blue like this pair from Ralph Lauren, olive green like this pair from Brooks Brothers, and black like this pair from Club Monaco.
Figuring out which pair of chinos will work best for you necessitates paying attention to details like the pockets. Make sure they don’t detract from the trim lines of the chinos, and if you want a trim, clean silhouette, look for slant pockets. Determining the best way to wear a pair of chinos also includes figuring out if you want to roll or cuff the legs. Chinos usually look best hitting right at the ankle with no break (or with only a very slight break), depending on how slim the legs are cut. If you’re unsure of the length that’ll look best on you — or need help getting your new pair of chinos to fit just right — that brings us to the next step…
3. Go to your tailor
You want to find a pair of chinos that’s a pretty good fit off-the-rack. But sometimes even the best pair of chinos will need a few adjustments, and that’s why you should make friends with your tailor. Even if you just need help nailing the inseam, it’s always worth the extra time and expense to make sure that your clothing fits impeccably. That makes it a whole lot easier to put together an outfit with little effort.
One of the biggest benefits of dressing in classic, simple, and sophisticated clothing is that you’ll be able to look back on photographs of yourself — whether they’re professional shots from your best friend’s wedding or Instagram snapshots uploaded from the party you attended last Friday — and won’t find anything to critique when it comes to your style. If the past record of chinos’ heritage is any indication, the perfect pair of chinos is a safe bet in keeping your style classic and relevant.
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