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August 02, 2018

What's up with wearing khakis in the workplace?

Infrequently Asked Questions seeks the answer

Fashion Clothing
khakis Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Timothy Hale/U.S. Navy/for PhillyVoice

Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Michael Jimenez, left, and Chief Electrician's Mate Willie Scott II, both attached to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, perform morning colors in honor of fallen chiefs the day prior to the chief petty officers' 124th birthday on March 31, 2017 in Yokosuka, Japan.

While startups of the day might be bailing on the dress pant and khaki as the work uniform, the khaki, in particular, has been a uniform of the 9-to-5 lifestyle for as long as anyone can remember. 

But why did we start wearing them in the first place?

Curious, we reached out to Kelly Kirby, assistant professor at Moore College of Art & Design and a cultural anthropologist, for an explanation. 

Why do we tend to wear khakis as a symbol of work culture?

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to, but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to entertainment@phillyvoice.com, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

The word "khaki" itself is derivative of a Hindu word and it means "soil color." And it came to the English language by way of the British-Indian Army, in 1848 – Henry Lawrence was his name. He was in India. He's British, and it was so hot in the typical British uniform, which was a red, wool jacket with white, cotton pants--imagine someone who walks around in his pajama bottoms of white cotton--and so he made them look khaki-colored by [coloring them with sand] to make them a different color. He recruited men to fight, in the process of colonization, and eventually, they started wearing these khaki items. He had someone in London make a khaki-colored uniform and it was shipped back to India, but it became official in the late 1880s when the British entered Ethiopia, and it was then standard for a soldier to wear khakis. 

From there, the U.S. Army started wearing them in the Spanish-American War in 1898. So, it went from a beige, soldier's uniform color to a darker green, and soldiers wore it during World War I and World War II, and interesting is that a lot of soldiers, among all the colonizers--the British, French, Americans--they started wearing this color because it fit in more with the colors of the land, so they didn't stand out as much because they thought they could fight better if they could be more camouflaged. 


The 'IAQ' Fast Facts

• Khakis as a work uniform have origins as actual uniforms in the British army.

• The brown khaki was created, in part, to blend in with the environment of India.

• Most people, culturally, don't wear jeans to work because they were designed as symbols of comfort and, thus, free time and money.


Modern khakis, with any trend designers will go and look for something different, and they started emulating these uniforms as khaki pants. They became popular but they didn't have as many pockets to put things in; the pockets, all that stuff went away. Not just with men, but women. You have women coming into the workforce during the world war because many of the men are gone, so they'd wear them but with way less pockets. Which is interesting, if you think about who the designers might have been; you're talking about a male-dressed body versus a female one, and the females didn't have as many pockets as the uniformed men, wearing outfits with closer cuts to their bodies. 

Now, over the years, khakis symbolize a lot of interesting things: It's a color and [pant] that is safe in that you can wear any pair of shoe with a pair of khaki pants. It's not like with black pants where you're limited to certain colors. It's also a socio-cultural statement, in the sense that you don't stand out, but you fit in. It's well-known that people wear khaki pants. But also, they show up in working-class jobs; Dickies and Levi's, and such. They have become uniform for people like plumbers. My daughter works at a school supplies store and she is required to wear khaki pants. It's something to symbolize you're at work, but also acceptance as the codified uniform.

It sounds like it mostly derives from army culture. It's based on a uniform, literally.

Absolutely. Yes.

The time period it became normal was after World War II?

Yes. And you know, originally, when it first came out, sometimes they weren't as tailored to the body. The whole idea of khakis, in the head, is to imagine a uniform. But now, it's "Find the most comfortable khaki." It's very similar to the idea of jeans. Jeans are something people spend a lot of money on to find a jean that fits their body, as opposed to going to JCPenney or Macy's and picking up a pair. Even Levi's has had to totally modify the fits for jeans to better fit the body, so people will buy their pants.

What's the fascination with covering the legs as a norm?

I think that in a specific work culture, it's not acceptable if you show up without your legs covered. Even for women. Men can wear dress pants or khakis, women can wear a skirt or dress, but you don't go to work without at least nylons on with a dress. It depends where you work...It also depends on where you live, culturally. I lived in San Diego for a long time and would teach and dress up every day, and after two years, I was driving to work and was like, "Oh god, I have jeans and a T-shirt on." It's part of that culture; you learn to be in that culture if you want to survive in it.

What about blue jeans? The idea you don't wear those to work? 

Because the idea of blue jeans is comfort, as well as aesthetics. But comfort and aesthetics outside of the workplace. And that's also indicative of perhaps what's going on in the economy. Because, first of all, you have to buy them, but then have time to wear them. And if you're working too much just to live--it's a social symbol to other people. "I have jeans on; I'm relaxing."