What are Chinos?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Chino is a Spanish word translating as "China" or "Chinese." The term, which is synonymous with "khakis" when used to describe pants, migrated to the English language, when pants made of strong cotton fabric were used as part of military uniforms in both the UK and the US. In its simplest definition, they are merely pants for men made of cotton fabric imported from China. They also picked up the name "khakis" because the military standard in the UK was to dye these pants to a tan khaki color. The modern chino may be dyed any color, though tan, black, blue, and olive drab are the usual choices.

Chinos, synonomous with khakis, are men's pants made from durable cotton fabric.
Chinos, synonomous with khakis, are men's pants made from durable cotton fabric.

Chinos as military uniform were simple slacks with straight waists, no pleats, and a tapered leg. The fabric was durable, yet light, and suitable for wear in warm conditions, while providing adequate coverage. The khaki color became popular in the UK in the mid 19th century, particularly for blending into the landscape of India during the British occupation. In the late 19th century, American soldiers started wearing khakis as part of standard military wear.

The term "khakis" came first, and is a Hindi name for the word dust. "Chinos" came later after the Spanish American War, where US occupation of the Philippines resulted in a high number of Spanish terms entering the English language, since so many residents of the Philippines spoke Spanish. The American style of military pant was much like the British, a very simple design with no pleats, a zip and button front, and straight legs.

By the early 20th century, the American public began to wear chinos, especially to semi-informal gatherings. Young men might wear them to school or college. They quickly became associated by the 1940s with the preppy look, and the young men wearing them after World War II only reinforced this. The 1950s perhaps can be viewed as the highpoint for chino popularity. Most schoolboys and college men wore these pants, as it was not always acceptable to wear jeans, especially to school.

Popularity of khakis as everyday pants declined with growing trends toward wearing more casual clothing. Jeans have been, since the mid 1960s, the standard wear for attending school, although people will still see chinos worn for informal events, and most boys in private schools wear them. Design styles have changed too, and both men and women may wear today’s varieties.

People are likely to see dressier styles of these pants with pleated fronts, larger pockets, cuffs, and a variety of other small details. Styles for women can be full length or come in pedal pusher or low waist styles. Further, khakis aren’t necessarily always made of 100% cotton twill, and the fabric does not always come from China, as it used to for military issue uniforms. They may have some polyester or other stain resistant fabric blended with cotton. Instead of referring to the fabric, the name more often now refers to a style imitative of military issued pants.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


So when all is said and done, chinos are just cotton trousers!


I have three pairs of chinos. They are black, brown, and gray.

They are actually capris made of high quality cloth. They look great with all sorts of blouses, and I wear them to work all summer long.

They are fancy enough to meet the dress code, yet they are so comfortable. They have a clasp at the waist with a few buttons in different locations so I can adjust the tightness if I'm really full after a meal or if I lose a few pounds.


@seag47 – I believe that China made the actual chino cloth. Yes, we had cotton, but maybe we didn't know how to make this cloth.

If you look closely at a pair of chinos, you can see the diagonal ribs in the fabric. Chinos are made to fall across the body in a flattering way.

I'm sure that by now, American manufacturers have probably come up with a way to copy the original chino making method. However, since so many factories have moved to China over the years, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most chinos are still made there.


I wonder why the cotton to make chinos came from China originally. We have always had plenty of cotton here in the United States.

Was it a cost concern? Did China offer cheaper products even back then?


I have some stain resistant chinos that I can wipe clean in seconds. When I spill something on them at lunch, it wipes right off with a damp cloth.

If chinos are not specifically stain resistant, then I can really have issues with them. I seem to be prone to spilling things, and the light color of the pants shows off the stains.


@Piemiento - Khaki's have several different styles and types, as stated in the bottom of the article above. I think that the commenter anon27790 was probably making the point that Chinos are a dressier type of pant, however, they can be many things. I used to be a Supervisor in the Men's Department of a major retail chain and Dockers (as you pointed out) has several different types of Chino pants. Some are even made with microfiber and sport a dressier look to them, but most are very thick.


@anon27790 - When many people hear the word "Chino," they associate it with Khaki's like Dockers and such - I think this is what the article was going for in that initial statement. While it's not a pant-exclusive or khaki-exclusive word per-say, the general population identifies the word much better when khaki Chinos are referenced.


"Chino pants" are definitely *not* synonymous with 'khakis.' Chino pants are made of twill cotton (originally from China) and of better quality (thicker) than khakis. Think of chinos as business class khakis.

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