If World War II had never happened, would khakis have ever become a staple of the American male wardrobe?
That’s the question I found myself pondering when my editor at Ralph Lauren Magazine said he wanted me to write a feature on khakis. What in the world was there to say that hadn’t been said? As I thought about it, I came up with this little alternate-history scenario.
If World War II hadn’t happened, there would have been no GI Bill that sent countless young men to college who might not otherwise have gone. There also wouldn’t have been tons of khakis available across the country at army surplus stores. The default pant countless American men have worn for over 60 years might instead have been — well, something else.
Alas the alternate-history passage ended up on the cutting room floor. That’s the writing business for you. Still, I think you’ll enjoy my musings about the pant that began as a uniform for the British army in India before making onto the legs of preps. Head over to Ralph’s site to check it out. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Those WW II khakis were produced by the Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co, the manufacturers of “Dickies”.
Ralph Lauren’s Prospect Pant, in my opinion, are the best there is.
… and if the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and WWII hadn’t happened, dungarees (blue jeans) might have never ended up being worn outside of rural areas and factories.
“Alas the alternate-history passage ended up on the cutting room floor.” Post it! We all want to know what would have happened! Great article despite this omission. Always great to see a reference to the immortal Lumsden and the Corps of Guides. For thrilling adventure and period detail, see George Younghusband (brother of the explorer Sir Francis), The story of the Guides (1908), available full text online at archive.org as well as other places. Good point about how much of our civilian attire has military roots. It is interesting to note how many people wore literal uniforms, military and civilian government employees, as well as others, including peaked caps, epaulettes, etc. in the period before World War II. That trend has been on the decline for many decades now, though as with all things, we may one day see the pendulum swing the other way.
It gets really interesting with the development of cargo cults during WWII.”The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred among the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II.” (Wikipedia)
These Pacific Islanders worshipped Japanese and American goods such as khakis that were airlifted thousands of miles to Melanesia. Years after WWII ended, Melanesian islanders fetichized khaki and anyone wearing cargo shorts and pants in khaki.
That’s basically it, what I wrote here. A short passage, but kind of a fun idea to contemplate.
And when I first met Marc and had started this website, one of the points he made was that most of the Ivy League Look was in place by the ’30s, was well covered in Esquire, and the war interrupted the style’s ability to spread. Once fabric became available again, the years ’45-54 were not very attractive, with the large baggy cuts of the time.
@ CC: Well done.
@ sacksuit: You are spot on!
Great article, Christian. Thanks for posting it here. Wearing a pair of old Bill’s M2s today, as a matter of fact. Great pants (if a tad full cut).
This line early in the article: “The word itself comes to us from Hindustani via Persian, where the root ‘khak’ means soil” has it backwards. What you meant was that it comes from Persian via Hindustani.
Interesting the piece for Ralph Lauren.
I work with a guy who graduated from college three years ago. He knows nothing about the old brands. (Why would he?) When I wear my J. Press tweed-Hertling flannel pants-repp tie-Mercer (and now Ratio!) OCBD combo, he remarks, “You look very Polo Ralph Lauren.”
It’s interesting–a lot of people who were born after 1990 think about the preppy look in terms of a few stores/brands–none of which include J. Press, Brooks, Chipp, or Lands End. Seems the top five list includes Vineyard Vines, Barbour, LL Bean (almost entirely because of the boots), Patagonia, and, above all else, Ralph Lauren.
Ralph Lauren–the Polo label, specifically–subsumed all of it. “Ivy style” isn’t a real thing anymore, is it? We’re all wearing Polo Ralph Lauren now, even when we’re not (really).
Charlottesville, I’ve been looking into Bill’s and examining the different fits. The M2 is the not the baggiest option but you still find it baggy? The description says straight leg.
S.E., the kids don’t. And unless we teach them, they’ll never learn.
So, before the war, college students just wore grey flannel trousers with sport coats? Or was there another popular pant? Either way, good thing chinos arrived on the scene.
Great article Christian. I can now thank World War II for my everyday school uniform.
Charlottesville and GS, I have several pair of Bill’s M2 plain front in both twill and poplin. They are a part of my uniform and a bit roomy although I prefer that at my age and I’m fairly skinny.
Is “khaki” just shorthand for chino (cloth) in khaki color? If the material is anything but cotton, then its “tan,” right?
Also… I am a big fan of Brooks Brothers Advantage Chino in their “British Khaki” color (the Clarke model). Those things are indestructible. Tro’ ’em in the wash, tro’ ’em in the dryer. No need to iron. The crease is permanent. How do they do it?
John, I too am skinny, especially my legs, but the M2 sounds the best because it has a 10 inch rise. Do you find the rise a little short?
Chewco, khaki pants are chinos in khaki color. There are British Tan chinos and white chinos, too.
GS, I wear both Bills M1 and M2. I prefer the longer rise on the M1s. I take both to my tailor to have them tapered…right down to the width of my Brooks Clark chinos at the hem (~8.25”). After that, they are the perfect pants. 🙂
BT, that’s a great point I can have them tailored. A classic rise is between 10 and 11 inches so the M2 is still an option. I’ve been trying to find pants that have this classic rise lately and it’s very hard. Even Polo’s pants are fairly low rose now.
Bill’s M2 on today. LL Bean shirt. Ralph American Living tie
Yes Dickie, as well as others. My father’s WWII khaki cotton drills all had Creighton labels.
GS, John Carlos and BT — I think the Bill’s M2 is a great pair of Khakis, and the rise is perfect for me. My only quibble is the width of the leg at the cuff. The M1, which I believe was based on the WW2 era GI pants, is very full in the seat and thigh. I am not sure that it could be taken in enough to suit my fairly average, 5′ 10″ build, but we are all made differently. I’m not wearing them today, but I guess the M2 may be about 9 inches at the bottom with a 30″ inseam (cuff, no break). I would prefer something between 7.5 and 8 inches at the cuff. As BT points out, that is an easy fix for a tailor, and I will have my next pair tapered from the knee. My local source stopped carrying Bill’s when the brand was sold, in anticipation of manufacturing possibly being transferred abroad. I have since heard that the new owners will continue to make them in the US, and so remain hopeful that quality will remain high. I note that all of this is rumor and second or third hand, and so I could easily be wrong. Anybody familiar with Charleston Khakis? I have a couple of pairs of lightweight summer pants, and the rise is a bit short, although the taper is just right. I have never tried their khakis, though, and they may be a different cut.
Wondeful article, CC. Ironically, I am wearing the closest I have to the original military “Dickie’s” Khakis, a pair of LL Bean flat-fronts. They are a good cross between a work pant (I will be drowned in boxes of paper today) and office attire.
Shredding today? ;op
We said that Hitler was died in WW-I,nazism had never took the power in Germany and Weimar Republic had in somehow survived,.
Mussolini stay quiet satisfied with his little empire,Stalin is busy to kill his own comrades,and Japan alone not challenge the United States and European empires.
September 1 1939 is only a peaceful day of end of summer.
WW-II not happen.
Well,change are many (the alternate history passionayes call they “butterflies”).
For the United States,is probable that without the menace of the war FDR not look for a third term, and the moderate Republican Wendel Willkie or the young Thomas E. Dewey (whose nomination,in a first time strong, was affected from the approach the war) is the new President in November 1940.
Without world war II we not have the “baby boom” in 40s, no mobility of workers in United States,no GI Bill (universities stay elitists), America not become a superpower after the war,so nothing cold war,big corporations that works for the military-industrial complex,lower suburbia immigration from the cities..,a different America.
From a wardrobe perspective 50s and 60s are more formal.
United Kingdom stay a global Empire with unchanged power and wealth,so the influence of British style remains undisputed in United States.
London lounge suits remains the king of elegant American male closet,with “ivy” undarted/natural shoulders for country and college only (in the north west coast area).
Italy stay fascist..ok,without the nazi nasty influence is a rose-colored glasses” fascism,but how long Italy can become rich and whealty with the lybian oil (the only colony that worth to have),we not have the explosion of fashion and creativity that Italy had in our timeline after the fall of fascist regime.
So none influence of “italian look” on American fashion (Britannia rule).
Without cold war and competition with USSR America is more socially conservative,is less thrust for civil rights and integration.
Obviously we not have Korea or Vietnam wars.
Wthout nazism german liberal professors stay in Gernany and not came in the American Universities,and we not have a “baby boom” (and 50s are in this world differents).
Without WW-II and cold war, technology is more slow..maybe the technological level of 1970 is the same of 1955 or so.
Is less necessity for sophisticated computers,Arpanet not exist,and probably in 2017 of this world we have in our homes the same computers of 1990 of our world.
So this blog not exist,and our host Chistian Chensvold writes editorials on the last Saville Row novelty on Esquire Magazine.
Charlottesville, GS, and BT– Never really thought about having the legs tapered but I think I’ll look into it. I live in San Antonio where it’s Summer about 8 months of the year so I’ve gone to the M2 poplin as well as the twill. I recently purchased a pair of twills under Bill’s new ownership. They’re not identical to the old ones but pretty close. The new Bill’s sport shirts, however, are another story. The collars are still button down but extremely short. Terrible in my opinion.
All this talk about pant rises has made me realize that I need khakis with a 12 inch rise. That is the nicest look and the most Ivy/vintage look. Sadly, it is so hard to find.
John Carlos – Thanks for the review of the new Bill’s. I may need to give them a try. I have had some pants tapered and they look much better after being slimmed down. Not too expensive either. I think Brooks charges $38 to do it, and my local person does it for around $20, as I recall.
GS — An 11″ rise is about perfect for me, and hard to find. Finding the right rise is my biggest problem with off-the-rack khakis and dress pants, and when I can find them, the legs and sometimes the seat are too full. I hope Christian gets his Ivy Style Pants Project back on track again. Could be the perfect solution.
Charlottesville, I just purchased an old, unworn pair of Polo khakis which are the exact same pair shown in the second image from the right. The rise is 12 inches and they’re a straight leg, which I like, not the campus style tapered leg. I agree, these days a higher rise means a baggier leg, I too hope that the I-S pants project can some day come to fruition. Crazy to think that even back in 1991 Polo was still making pants with a classic rise…
“If World War II had never happened, would khakis have ever become a staple of the American male wardrobe?”
IMO – which I have posted here myself in the past – the answer is no. At least not as we know khakis.
And khakis became a university norm not because surplus WWII khakis were available for years but because in 1946 and years after hundreds of thousands of WWII GIs flooded onto every campus from the Ivy League to the local state universities thanks to the GI Bill that paid their educational expenses.
Most of those young servicemen had little discretionary income and therefore continued to wear parts of their uniforms, especially, I imagine the trousers and shoes.
Having been in the armed forces was prestigious so those who had not served wanted to look as if they had so they bought theirs at ubiquitous surplus stores that sprang up in every town in the U.S.
Carmelo Pugliatti — only just seen your post > Thanks, it’s brilliant: thoughtful and credible> Rule Britannia indeed.
Bills Khakis are simply the best. I wear them 5 days a week at least. M2, 5-pocket slim fit are my faves. Comfort, quality, fit and more. American-made! Don’t wast your time with Ralph’s or other knock-off brands.