GI Bill: Mr. Thomas and His Postwar Khakis

Bruce Boyer herein presents his first piece for Ivy-Style, an interview with Bill Thomas of Bill’s Khakis.

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

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of numerous books on menswear, most recently “Fred Astaire Style” for Assouline. He currently contributes to The Rake.

Pictured above is the Bill’s Khakis M3 model.

For a gallery of postwar khaki advertisements, visit this thread at AAAT.

8 Comments on "GI Bill: Mr. Thomas and His Postwar Khakis"

  1. Michael Mattis | October 2, 2009 at 12:09 pm |

    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.

  2. Michael Mattis | October 2, 2009 at 12:14 pm |

    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.”

  3. Story of “chino” here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chino_cloth

    They’re used interchangeably, but khaki actually refers to color while chino to the cloth.

    Perhaps Boyer can elucidate further.

  4. 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.

  5. Paul Stillman | October 2, 2009 at 6:33 pm |

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. whiskeydent | January 19, 2017 at 9:52 am |

    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.
    http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170119005229/en/NEJ-Announces-Acquisition-Bills-Khakis

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