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The Rise and Fall of Khaki

What happened to America’s one-time favorite fabric?

Padma Lakshmi in a khaki suit on Top Chef
Padma Lakshmi in a khaki suit on Top Chef

Recently, I was watching a series of comforting 90s movies, ranging from Double Jeopardy to I Know What You Did Last Summer, and trying to pinpoint what made them — even Anaconda! — so aesthetically appealing, so Tumblr-worthy in a post-normcore (sorry) age. Images in VHS hues make the world look like it used to be a slightly warmer color palette before bright LCD screens. No one in these movies seemed to wear a color that wasn’t of this earth. Faded blues, pale yellows, and khaki. Lots and lots of khaki. Remember khaki?

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I tweeted the inquiry "When was the last time you wore khaki?" and got this range of responses: "2002," "middle school uniforms," and "working at Walgreens in 2008 lol." In 1998, the Khaki Swing commercial was Gap’s most iconic ad. It aired during the final episode of Seinfeld, a very khaki show. Then, in 2011, the New York Times captioned this photo with "When khakis are no longer the one big thing, what do you do?" Image searching "Gap Ad 2016" comes up with myriad accusations of racism, myriad shades of denim, and definitely no khaki. Where did it go? It just sort of… faded. I remember wearing khaki skorts; moms and dads wore Dockers, and every family photo was taken in varying shades of beige.

The thing about khaki is that it’s not something specifically dated like low-rise bellbottoms or t-shirts emblazoned with vintage road signs; it’s simply a fabric. It is, however, a fabric that says a lot about how Americans have mixed work and leisure from the 1940s to now. Khaki, perhaps more than denim, might be the most emblematic of how Americans have defined (or not defined) casualwear. Tracing the history and production of khaki tells the story of American fashion production after World War II.

Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty

"I think people have an affinity for khaki because it’s traditionally been, since the 1940s, this limbo land between dresswear and casualwear," says Deirdre Clemente, professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "It’s sort of the dressiest of casual wear. It’s super comfortable, which is one of the main reasons it was adopted after World War II. It was one of those military things that went into civilian life because it was so comfortable. The way that it was cut — it was very durable. It had deep pockets. It took a good beating, and you could wash it."

Khaki was used for a specific sort of military uniform during World War II: the U.S. Army Field "Class C" uniform. Soldiers in tropical climates stationed along the Pacific wore this specifically lightweight, breathable khaki uniform. It was a convenient fabric to produce after the war. Soldiers loved the comfort and durability of it, and civilians loved that it was a sign of patriotism (a comfy one, nonetheless). It was also a fabric that came along as women began to wear pants, too.

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"Women in pants was the other thing that broke during World War II," Clemente explained. "People like to point to the 1960s as ‘Oh, everything changed in the 60s,’ but really World War II broke the backbone of anything that came after it. There were so many other kinds of demands on fabric, so many social conventions that they [got rid of]. Khaki came in as sort of a rebel fabric. After World War I there was a hard time getting clothing, there was this whole weird stagnation of clothing being accessible, so the U.S. government said ‘We’re not going to do that after World War II.’ Rather we’re going to flood the market with consumer products, and that brings you into the 1950s with suburbanization and all that kind of stuff. Khakis started to be produced not as military garb, but as casual wear for barbeques in the suburbs.

Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty

Princeton was where trends in menswear used to emerge — it was a bunch of rich troublemaker bros who liked to go into the city on the weekend. The boys of Princeton, Clemente says, were the first to adopt it as part of their prep school wardrobe after the war for the dual purpose of both a symbol of patriotism and an easy thing to pair with a blazer. The fundamental function of khaki hasn’t really changed since. It’s equal parts preppy and classic and bland. Post-World War Ivy Leaguers and Katharine Hepburn are probably the only people who’ve ever made khaki look rebellious. Hepburn had hundreds of pairs of khaki slacks she wore at a time when it was inappropriate for a Hollywood actress to not wear skirts and dresses.

Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook heralded in Prep 2.0 in the eighties. This also coincided with American fashion production moving overseas to places like China and Bangladesh. High fashion has never been very interested in khaki, save for any time a designer decides to do something involving the word "safari." It was the 1980s rise of Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors that turned couture into attainable luxury for upper middle class Americans. In the 90s, the extremely American concept of business casual was the best thing that could have happened to khakis. During the first tech bubble, jeans weren’t yet embraced as officewear but employees didn’t want to wear suits either. Americans were trying to figure out what business casual meant, and khakis made sense. They weren’t denim, but they were comfortable enough.

"Whole mega chains have made their business on khaki," Clemente says. "You can mix it up in 50 different styles, put a couple of cargo pockets on it, and sell it at Old Navy, too. The artists, they didn’t really care about it, but the guys who wanted to make money, they thought ‘Hey, what do these guys want to buy?’"

Preppy style on cast members from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Photo: NBC/Getty

It’s hard to pinpoint a time when people started letting their khaki shorts collect dust in a closet. A safe bet would be when Americans started embracing denim as a luxury item. In the early 2000s we were coveting True Religion and 7 For All Mankind jeans; there were Levi’s "Pioneers! Oh Pioneers!" ads instead of "Khaki Swing" spots. Obviously khaki is still kicking on some level because there are still offices, dads, and, according to a Wall Street Journal article, still lots of cargo shorts wearers causing their partners strife.

Gap, that original emporium of nineties khaki, has had declining sales for a while now. The fabric is obviously not the sole culprit (could khaki really be the sole culprit of anything?), but it’s a bit symbolic of things that haven’t totally disappeared, yet also haven’t held up: malls and young people willing to pay more than $20 for a mass-produced cotton shirt. Art Peck, Gap’s CEO, said to analysts last June that the company’s main problem was that the product didn’t resonate with customers.

Wendi Goldman, executive vice president of product design for Gap, feels pretty strongly that khakis are around for the long haul. "Khakis have always played a key role in Gap’s product story, especially as we continue to offer new fits, washes and design updates for men and women. On social media we’re seeing a whole new generation of fans dressing up styles like our vintage wash slim fit for men and cropped and wide-leg fits for women in really exciting, unexpected ways."

I’m not sure I’ve seen people doing unexpected things with khaki. Unexpected, to me, might be styling a pair of sweatpants to look work-appropriate. People have become used to increasingly synthetic fabrics with a yoga pant feel; even denim is feeling it. A 2015 Bloomberg article wrote that athletic pants sold last year in equal numbers to jeans for the first time in the U.S., while sales from women’s jeans fell 8 percent. If this is happening to denim, this certainly means we aren’t buying more khaki. Walking around an Austin, Texas mall, khakis seemed to exist in each store simply as a token gesture. Gap, J.Crew, and Banana Republic each had one or two respectable pairs of khaki shorts and slacks for men and women, priced at about $40 and above. I slipped into a pair of Gap "Girlfriend" chinos (basic khaki pants) and remembered what it was like to wear materials that can be described by the word "crisp."

Candace Corlett, president of retail strategy firm WSL, attributes the slow, ambiguous death of khakis to a PR problem. (She, too, couldn’t remember the last time she wore khakis and thanked me for giving her a reason to get rid of them.)

"It’s almost like the khaki fabric has become locked into trouser mentality," she said. "That’s the downfall of khaki, having continued to identify itself with trousers or slacks instead of saying ‘We are a fabric.’ It’s a great fabric! But there were never khaki fabric jackets, or straight leg khakis. They didn’t design it into what people want to wear. The fabric industry allowed khaki to become locked into an identity that is gone."

Khaki on models for Vivienne Tam, 2005. Photo: Mark Mainz/Getty

I asked Corlett why she thought khakis hadn’t come back in a stronger way for millennials who love both irony and comfort. She tells me that young people are looking for fashion that’s wearable and easy to care for — no irons needed, and probably made out of something stretchy and supremely light. "It’s not even a polarizing fabric like linen," Corlett says. "It’s worse than not being polarizing. It’s not even on the radar." This, all of a sudden, made me quite sad for khaki; it doesn’t even have haters.

There wasn’t a unified answer when I asked whether we might see khaki swing ads again. Jenna Caccavo, a trend analyst from Cotton Incorporated, gave a fairly confident yes. "Perhaps it’s a rebellion of the psyche in reaction to choice overload, but less is becoming more in so many aspects of our life. As basics begin to reclaim real estate in our closets, khakis will surely be in the mix." Clemente thought they might come back if Kanye West wore them, and Corlett gave an emphatic no.

"No!" she said upon my inquiry. "There’s now an entire middle ground of acceptable fabrics for business casual that are not khaki. It’s not just khaki or denim. Khaki you usually have to press. Does anyone own an iron anymore? It’s going to take designers saying ‘We’re going to take this fabric and mold it, shape it, form it into fashionable wear.’ People aren’t going to go back to trousers and slacks. Khaki’s going to have to go to where fashion’s going."

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty

Men in khakis look like frat boys and youth group ministers from Tennessee. Women in khakis could be a different story — and I’m doing armchair trend forecasting of my own here — we might be the saving grace of the fabric. Khakis, for all their blandness, are powerfully casual pants to don. They don’t really care what you think about them. Katharine Hepburn knew this, your middle-aged liberal arts professor aunt knows this, and Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine learned this when trying on a pair of Acne trousers that were perfectly "high waist and slouch."

"As long as Americans struggle with the dichotomy of dressing up and looking like slobs, there’s always going to be a place for fabrics like khaki," Clemente asserts. "It’s so utilitarian. It fits a need, and it’s versatile. Five years from now your friends might be like ‘Hey, remember when nobody wore khaki?’ I don’t think the heydey of khaki is over. I think khaki will rise again."


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