Men’s fashion offers endless choices, with many of these options falling into gray areas. The harsh truth is that while chinos, khakis, and dress pants (slacks) seem one and the same, they aren’t as interchangeable as you think. With no right or wrong answer, each style serves a different purpose.
Chinos are casual to semi-formal pants with a fitted, tapered cut and distinctive stitching. In comparison, khakis are thick, durable straight-legged cotton pants with trouser cuffs and generally serve well for utilitarian purposes. Lastly, dress pants are wool trousers suited for formal occasions.
While the differences may seem minor, each style is appropriate for a different occasion. So, without deep-diving into the history − as it provides no current relevance on where to and when to wear them − continue reading to understand the true difference between chinos, khakis, and dress pants.
Chinos vs Khakis vs Dress Pants
While many manufacturers and advertisers seem to stray from the actual boundaries and guidelines of what chinos, khakis, and dress pants are, we will provide a general approach to the differences between the three pant types. Hopefully, it’ll help ease your next trip to the mall.
Chinos are pants made from lightweight twill cotton or cotton blends that generally feature a fitted and slightly tapered cut as they lower down the leg allowing to cuff them or leave them uncuffed. In addition, they offer a distinctive streamline or stitching and never exhibit pleats or additional seams like other pants, giving them a dressier appearance.
Chino pants fall somewhere between formal and casual wear. While many people associate chinos with a “put-together” look because they are more classy than jeans or casual pants, they aren’t formal enough to wear to high-end events.
Instead of formal wear, chinos are ideal for someone seeking minimal aesthetics and versatility. You can wear them to school, work (business-casual look), out to dinner, at a semi-formal occasion, or while running weekend errands. More so, chinos are available in a wide range of colors like neutrals, khaki, navy, blue, salmon, cobalt, and many more, making these versatile pants worth every penny!
There are around 15 different chino styles for men and women.
Khakis are pretty challenging to pin down truly. Technically khaki pants are strictly a beige, tan, or dusty light brown shade. They were initially tinted using coffee, curry, or tobacco juice (I know we said we weren’t going to dive into the history, but regard this as an insightful, fun fact). However, many manufacturers now use khaki to describe the style of pants rather than the color.
Khakis are thick, straight-legged pants made from heavyweight cotton twill. In addition, you’ll typically find pleated khaki pants; however, new brands offer pants featuring a plain front.
Khaki pants display trouser cuffs at the bottom hems along with pockets and lack the distinctive interior stitching of chino pants. However, classic khakis are durable and generally serve utilitarian and heavy-duty purposes.
Although mostly bought for practical purposes, khakis now exhibit a unique and versatile style, making them perfect for workwear to casual wear. Interchangeably, you’ll find up to 21 different khaki pant varieties available for men and women.
Dress Pants (Slacks)
Dress pants or slacks are ultimately known as trousers suitable for formal occasions.
Dress pants are generally smooth, wool knit, polyester, or a synthetic blend. The dress pants made from wool will have a smooth finish and slight sheen. One typically wears dress pants to achieve a more “dressed up” look as they are more formal than jeans, khakis, or chinos.
Dress pants are part of the perfect attire for a wedding, job interview, business-professional, business-casual, and other formal events. Like other formal pants, you can wear dress pants with other matching suit pieces. Alternatively, dress them down by removing your belt and finishing your outfit with a t-shirt and funky blazer.
When the word “formal” is part of the dress code, put away the pair of chinos or khakis and opt for a set of dress pants instead.
Chinos, Khakis, and Dress Pants History
A brief throwback in time allows us to understand where chinos, khakis, and dress pants originate − here’s the history of these pants.
A Brief History of Chinos
Like most iconic menswear, Chinos have a military origin; the simply genius pants were developed resulting from a practical, utilitarian need.
Originally, chino cloth came from a lightweight twill weave from China (hence its name). During the late 19th century, both the British and French military used chino to make their uniform trousers.
Then, the need for uniform trousers for the American soldiers serving in the Philippines (during the Spanish-American war), along with the cheaper costs and quicker imports from China, encouraged the Americans to purchase chino trousers similar to khakis.
The trousers had a straightforward and tapered design without pleats to save on costs, resulting in a smooth style. Similarly, the American soldiers had chino-styled uniform trousers during World War One.
The returning soldiers brought them home to civilians, and the Varsity students took to chinos after World War One − they are still a fashionable trend today!
A Brief History of Khakis
Khakis are older than chinos by a better of a century. In 1846, the very first khaki trousers originated when a British officer traded his company’s wool clothing for a lighter and looser cut made from native cotton while serving in Punjab.
Then, he dyed the trousers with a plant (Mazari) to produce a dusty tan color. The locals called the color “khaki,” meaning dust-colored in the Urdu language, giving it its common name.
By 1884, the entire British Empire formally took on khaki trousers as their uniform style after realizing that the khaki pants were a much better alternative to the traditional, sweltering wool of the previous uniform.
The British dyed the sturdy cotton fabric with coffee, curry, or tobacco juice to create a uniform that camouflages into the landscape.
By the 1900s, the cotton twill khakis became a trend as soon as the locals saw the returning soldiers in this sturdy yet comfy pair of pants.
A Brief History of Dress Pants (Slacks)
Slacks might have first originated in Central Asia as the oldest known trousers came from Yanghai cemetery in Turpan, western China.
The trousers were made of wool, exhibiting straight legs and wide crotches, primarily for horse riding.
While dress pants are historically made from wool, these pants are available in alternative, less expensive synthetic materials. In addition, the original weaving technique of wool dress pants makes them pretty heavy. Still, the unique method creates iconic patterns in the fabric.
By the 19th century, dress pants started to resemble the ones we wear today, featuring a loose fit and button fly.
Fun fact, many boast that Prince Edward VIII is why the front crease of dress pants is famous today.
Distinctive Features of Chinos, Khakis, and Dress Pants
If you are still unsure how to tell these pants apart, rest assured, you will know in no time− take a brief look at the distinctive features for additional clarity on the critical differences between chinos, khakis, and dress pants.
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Are Chinos and Khakis the Same Thing?
Even though many manufacturers like to use the terms “chinos” and “khakis” interchangeably, they aren’t the same. Chino trousers are offshoots of the original “khaki” pants, and they typically have a lighter fabric, interior seams, and a dressier look. In contrast, khakis are heavy and display a boxy and more utilitarian style.
Are Chinos Formal or Casual Attire?
Chinos are the perfect middle ground between formal and casual wear. Chinos are suitable for business casual or semi-formal and less informal events. However, they aren’t ideal for dressy occasions where a suit is required.
Is Dress Pant Only for Formal Occasions?
Dress pants are more versatile than suit pants (strictly for formal events and professional business settings); you can wear dress pants to smart-casual or business-casual settings.
Combine a pair of dress pants with an upper-body item like a T-shirt, cardigans, or sports coats to make them less formal.
Are Khaki Pants Only Khaki?
The term “khaki” means dust-colored in the Urdu language. Khaki trousers are available in similar colors like cream, beige, British khaki, tan, pebble, and taupe.
However, because manufacturers use the terms “chino” and “khaki” interchangeably, you may find other color variations of khaki trousers in stores.
All in all, we prefer meeting the trends, functionality, and price in the middle by choosing a pair of chino pants as a top buy.
Chino trousers are versatile pants that fit nearly every dress code! More so, chinos and available in an endless range of colors.
In addition, you can dress chinos up or down; they are perfect to wear for school, casual business meetings, a night out with your friends, or semi-formal occasions.