Legendary menswear historian G. Bruce Boyer offered this piece to Ivy Style ten years ago. Much has changed since then, most notably that Bill Thomas is no longer at his eponymous label, and presently works for Duck Head.
* * *
Khakis and jeans are the iconic American work pants, both having been around for over a century but coming into global status after World War II. The democratizing effect of these trousers — everyone from top CEOs and celebrities to road workers has at least a pair of each — cannot be overestimated. Every clothing designer on the planet has these trousers as essential components of their creativity. Ralph Lauren is fond of wearing his jeans with a dinner jacket, while both Dolce and Gabbana wear wear their chinos black, low slung, and razor cut.
For U.S. soldiers returning from World War II, khakis were the all-purpose trouser. With the huge de-mobbing of soldiers after the war, coupled with the GI Bill for higher education, these durable tan cotton trousers became an essential part of the casual campus wardrobe. If a student had a pair or two of khakis, a Shetland sweater, a tweed jacket or blazer, and a few oxford-cloth buttondowns, he was pretty well set.
In the tie-dyed, flower-power 1960s and ’70s, the versatile tan trousers were largely replaced by patched and decorated denim. But khakis never disappeared, and started to make something of a resurgence in the ’80s, along with faint stirrings of a returned interest in Ivy League style. One can conveniently date this movement from the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980.
By this time Ralph Lauren had already been mining what he realized was a heavy lode promoting his Old WASP Look, with growing success, for 12 years. His Anglo-American Old Money Look included a substantial closet full of 1950s college staples, coupled with Savile Row and Oxford University classics. It was getting harder and harder to find The Real Thing in U.S. stores — Brooks Brothers had capitulated, and campus clothing stores across the country were being converted to pizza shops — and Ralph knew it. In the face of one crazy trend after another, Lauren had the courage, sense and sensibility to stick to tradition. He copied the authentic Levis (jeans, shirts, and ranch jackets) because the Levi Strauss Co. had gone off making bell-bottomed cotton pants in sludge-toned colors. He also made buttondowns without polyester, and pastel-colored crewnecks. By the mid-’80s Polo was raking it in.
About this time a young college student named Bill Thomas discovered a pair of World War II khaki pants in an Army-Navy surplus store. I now turn the story over to him:
As a kid, I’d describe myself as the biggest kid who could still play sports. I was used to getting clothes in the “Husky” department. So I was also used to always feeling slightly restricted in my clothes. People who are just a little heavy will know that feeling, of clothes being just a little tight, perhaps a little inhibiting.
Anyway, one day I went with a few friends to an Army-Navy surplus store, and I tried on a pair of original World War II khaki pants, which you could still find in those days. It was something of an epiphany. The pants were actually comfortable, I couldn’t believe it. They were full in the leg and seat and crotch, the rise was high enough, and they were well made. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I felt somehow freer, more relaxed. I was able to move and not feel constricted, the trousers weren’t pulling at me. It was a revelation, and I was hooked on these old khakis.
Bruce here. I just want to interrupt a minute to say that you could hardly credit this story if you saw Bill today. He’s tall and trim, looking perhaps more like a scholarly billiard cue than anything. I must remember to ask him for his diet next time we talk. But let’s return to the story:
So I started buying all my pants at the surplus store. And then one day they ran out. There weren’t any more, the supply dried up. Period. I won’t say I took it personally, but it was a considerable blow. I searched around, and discovered that the supply of genuine khakis was in fact dwindly everywhere. It didn’t seem right. The world needed a company that made great khakis, no corners cut, if for no other reason than to prove a point. These old khakis represented something greater: a forgotten piece of Americana.
After a few years of playing in the sandbox with the idea, I finally did what was perhaps both one of the most rash and sensible things I’ve ever done. In 1990 I quit my advertising job in Chicago, returned home to Reading, PA, got a few thousand dollars together, and started making my own khakis. I set out to fill the gap, to re-supply guys like me by recreating the original World War II GI-issue pants. I followed my instincts that there were enough guys out there who had the experience or wanted the tradition of real khakis. The year was 1990.
And for awhile that’s what I did and all I did: one authentic model of design, one cotton twill cloth cut to the original pattern, and with a heavy-duty zipper and tough pocket bags. Word got around among the aficionados and scavengers of surplus stores, and I was in business. It wasn’t til a bit later that it occurred to me that the averagely built guy might not want or need the full-cut model, even though he wanted the real look and quality of the original. So we started to experiment by cutting down, paring and trimming: a half inch here, an inch there. Eventually we got a good balance for a slightly trimmer model, which became our Model #2.
Just to finish this thread of thought, recently we’ve incorporated an even trimmer model into the line, our Model #3, which has a tapered leg and sits lower on the waist and narrower in the seat and hips. I wouldn’t call it a fashion statement — my mind doesn’t readily adjust to all the quick changes in fashion — but we wanted to have a slimmer model for the young guy who’s interested in a newer style, or just doesn’t need the extra room. A pair of khakis is only as good as the fit, and that’s a moving target. We’ve got the fit spectrum pretty much covered at this point.
That’s how it happened: Bill’s Khakis now does indeed offer choices. The company has, over the past several seasons, produced a range of casual shirting, jackets, and accessories. Not to mention that their khaki models are available in a variety of cotton twills, poplins, corduroy and wools. But that’s another story. — G. BRUCE BOYER
A very illuminating piece, Mr. Boyer. Thanks so much for sharing it with the Ivy Style club. I frequent an Army-Navy surplus store a few time a year near where I live. Sadly, I have never come across an authentic pair of WWII-era khakis there. And Old Navy doesn’t count.
One question: Where does the term “chinos” come from? I understand that “khaki” comes from the Persian via India via the British and means “dust-colored” or “mud-colored.”
One of the best “New era” khakis I have ever found were made by Perry Ellis Sportswear in the very early ’80s. During this time Mr. Ellis was still alive and the menswear line was very new. This was long before the brand went “main floor”. The Ralph Lauren pant is a poor substitute. I really want a pleated leg.
Do the Nantucket Red pants produced by Murray’s Toggery Shop count as khakis or chinos? If so, I can attest to the fact that they are sufficiently roomy for a guy who needs extra room in the bottom, thighs, and crotch. They probably look a bit baggy on me, but that’s how I like them.
I can relate to the part of the story where he talks about clothes never fitting quite right for husky individuals like myself. That’s particularly true when I’m wearing button down shirts. If I buy the shirt to fit my middle it’s too big in the neck and chest and if I buy it to fit my neck and chest it either won’t fit around me at all or the material gaps and pulls between the buttons. This problem is particularly acute as I advance towards my middle forties.
Christian, Nice score on this article.
If Mr. Thomas has any advice on how to minimize fraying on cuffed hems I’d love to know it. People seem have various experiences and mine have been not so good.
Also, if Mr. Thomas would produce unconstructed jackets in long sizes he would have one very grateful customer.
Great story. One quibble:
“everyone from top CEOs and celebrities to road workers has at least a pair of [jeans and khakis] each”
I must be the far outlier: I have neither. Tan is not a flattering color for me, and I have no need for jeans. However, I will admit to having several chino-like pants, and will buy American-made jeans when I start camping, etc. with my family.
Weird. I went looking for a report on whether the quality had slipped since the acquisition and found this brand new press release. Looks like they’re going to fiddle with the fit.
I bought my first pair of Bill’s ten years ago and I won’t ever year anything else. I bought a pair of levi’s a year ago. The fit is horrible compared to Bill’s and nowhere as comfortable.it immediately reminded me of when I switched to khaki’s when in college in the 80’s. Have bought Bill’s since the management took over and haven’t noticed a change.
Bill Thomas may have left Bills (no apostrophe) Khakis and gone to Duck Head, but I can assure you that if you’re looking for traditional-cut khakis you need look no further than Bills Khakis. Duck Head khakis are less substantial and the cut is not quite right.
Duck Head is selling “Gold Glory Chinos” on their website for $189. Utterly ridiculous! Bill Thomas has no shame!
I am old enough to remember when Duck Head chinos were the favored chinos of frugal Southern frat boys and sold for about $20 a pair.
Talk about “Gold Glory”…
Glad to hear Bill’s Khakis are still the same. Their cords have always been super also. Nantucket Reds from Murray last forever, I have three pair I have worn for about 30 years. I am always amazed when Levis even enters an Ivy discussion. Keep ’em on the ranch where they belong.
@Vern Trotter: Levi’s may not be part of the Ivy wardrobe but they are relevant to any discussion of Duck Head.
Duck Head was founded in Nashville and sponsored Hank William’s radio program. Hank Williams was a sharp dresser who wore Stetson cowboy hats and hand-painted ties. You can’t have a discussion about cowboys without mentioning Levi’s jeans.
Firstly, I have been well catered for over the past few years in terms of chinos as both RL and Gap have provided iterations which are pleated and tapered – how chinos ought to be. Regarding Levi’s – 501s fashioned from Cone Mills denim, White Oak if possible, are STILL available to buy and are THE only jeans worth having. One day they will cease to be available, so fill your boots while you can. That goes for almost everything.
@Old School Tie: I couldn’t agree with you more regarding chinos and jeans.
Cone Mills, White Oak plant selvedge is the holy grail of denim. The irregularities in the texture are due to the Draper shuttle looms clattering on cherrywood floors that support the looms. The slub-like appearance is almost like a silk shantung.
Sadly, the White Oak plant is permanently closed but there are still grail jeans on the market, so strike while the iron is hot.
Actually, you can discuss cowboys without Levis. While there are no absolutes, Wranglers lead the way in Texas with real and not-so-real cowboys like yours truly. The “Cowboy Cut” model has a higher rise and fuller butt than 501’s (I feel like I have permanent plumber’s butt in those). The cowboys in the South Texas “Brush Country” sometimes wear tan, chino-like pants that breathe better than jeans in the omnipresent heat.
Levis are favored by cowboys of the Mountain West. Sometimes called buckaroos, these guys and gals often tuck their jeans in boots that have extra-tall, more-inverted heals.
I did not know that. You learn something new every day. Thanks for the heads up.
Wrangler’s Cowboy Cut (the slim fit, only one iteration away from standard) are the only pair of jeans I own. I wear them when I decide to wear boots.
The Levi vs Wangler debate has raged like forever. It really is a regional thing. I’ve worn 501s since elementary school, 60 years.
It’s definitely a regional thing, though 501’s aren’t absent down here. In the 70’s, hippies wore them, in part, to distinguish themselves. I’ve never seen a hippie in Wranglers.
501 versus Wrangler is also a political statement. Just like Prius or Pickup.