Three Types of Chinos

Khaki chinos are not, as they say, just khaki chinos. Though they’re always casual, they come in different flavors of informality, and it’s good to be sensitive to these differences when you’re choosing the right pair to wear for the day.

I think of chinos as being of three varieties. The first is your standard casual pair, which is what you most commonly find in shopping malls. These are distinguished by visible stitching on the inseams and outseams (the seams going up and down both sides of your legs). They’re also often made from cheaper materials, sit lower on your hips, and sometimes feature some kind of “wash” or “distressing.” That means they look a bit more beaten up – faded around the lap and slightly frayed along the pockets and leg openings. These, in my opinion, are best worn with casual shirts, such as those made from a rougher cloth (e.g. oxford) or feature bold patterns (e.g. bright madras, plaid flannels). They’re also fine with things such as t-shirts, polos, cardigans, and sneakers. If the length of your shirt permits, you can wear it untucked. They’re less optimal, however, with dressier shirts – such as shirts made from smooth poplin, have no chest pocket, and feature French fronts. Those would be too dressy for this kind of pants.  

Your second type is the workwear variety, which differ from the first category in their material and fit. Workwear chinos are made from tougher twill cottons and allowed to fit differently. Whereas traditional men’s pants should fit in a certain way, workwear chinos can have a bit more rumple in the leg line and seat (though they don’t necessarily have to). In short, these should feel and look a bit rougher. They are, after all, supposed to express a certain workwear sensibility. Such chinos can be worn with chambray shirts, plaid flannels, rugged outerwear, and heavy boots. In a way, some of the things you can wear here aren’t too different than what you can wear with standard casual chinos, but the effects will be different. A chambray shirt worn with RRL Officer Chinos or Left Field’s, for example, will look very different than if it’s paired with something from J Crew.   

Finally, the last type is what I’d call “dress chinos.” As oxymoronic as that sounds, dress chinos are distinguished by hidden stitching along the inseams and outseams. They sit higher on the hips, are made from nicer materials, and are generally made to much higher quality standards. They also typically come “unfinished,” meaning the lengths aren’t pre-hemmed. These are arguably the most versatile. They can be worn with casual shirts such as oxford cloth button-downs or proper dress shirts; long sleeve polos or cardigans; traditional sweaters of almost any variety; and even sport coats and ties. They shouldn’t be worn, however, with cheap, beat-up t-shirts or rugged outerwear, such as motorcycle jackets.

The photos above demonstrate good uses of chinos. Something like this, on the other hand, is a bit too incongruous, at least to my eye. It would be better, in my opinion, if the gentleman had worn dress chinos, a pale blue shirt, and some brown calf derbys. Or he could have ditched the double-breasted and tie, and picked a more casual shirt to wear with his very-casual chinos and suede chukkas. As is, the look is too formal up top and too informal down bottom. To be sure, clashing formal and informal things can make a very fashionable statement, but if one wanted to dress more harmoniously and less conspicuously, it would be good to be sensitive to the different kinds of sensibilities garments have, and then pair them accordingly. For chinos, that would be standard casual, workwear, and dress. 

A Complete Guide to Getting Chinos This Summer

Chinos have a bit of a circutous history. They began as part of the British Army’s standard uniform starting around the 1840s. By the end of the 19th century, American troops stationed in the Philippines began wearing them. They remained associated with the military for another hundred years, until 1942, when the US Navy approved that they could be worn off-duty. Since then, they’ve been incredibly popular with the public. I think the civilian trend largely took off when James Dean began wearing them. That was during a time when much of the public looked towards Hollywood for sartorial direction, and ever since then, the popularity of chinos has been buoyed by big marketing campaigns from companies such as The Gap. 

The great thing about chinos is that, like jeans, they look better with age. In fact, one of the best looks, in my opinion, is a pair of really worn down chinos with a sports coat, oxford cloth button down shirt, and pair of brown loafers. The more worn down and beat up the chinos, the more stylish this look becomes. When the pants are too new, the look can be a bit stiff. As such, I recommend that you wear your chinos with a bit of a rumple and avoid creasing the front of the legs. Creases on chinos add fifteen years to your age and can make you look like the type that irons your underwear. Wear them as casually as you can and invite the fraying that comes. If you want, you can also roll up the the legs a bit, which Gilt Manual recently gave some really good tips for

So if you’re on the market for chinos, where can you turn? Here are some options. Note that in the interest of sizing information, I’ve included what I wear for most of these. I’m a size 32 in most pants, but sometimes have to size down depending on the cut. It’s probably also worth mentioning that I have an Asian booty that’s flatter than a flapjack, so take that into account when gauging whether my reviews will be helpful for you.

  • Uniqlo Vintage chino ($50): Uniqlo’s Vintage fit chino is a nice slim cut model with mid-century details - watch pocket, decent hardware, and a slight herringbonish finish. Unfortunately, they also have a low rise, which makes them not as good for tucking in shirts. Still, for $50, they’re not bad, and if you’re in New York City, you can pick one up at any of their stores. Uniqlo should also have a website up at some point, but details on the drop date are fuzzy. I wear a 32 in these. 
  • Brooks Brothers Milano Fit chinos ($95): Brooks has a popular slim fit chino. They’re a bit tapered, which make them good for slim men, but not much so for heavier guys (tapered pants can emphasize your waistline). The material is a smooth plain-weave, which gives them an “office” feel. I prefer slightly rougher twill models, personally, but it’s a matter of taste. Unfortunately, Brooks only has a terrible peach colored version left, but they’ll restock their other colors soon, so just keep an eye out. If you catch them at the beginning of their sales, you can nab one for as little as $60, but otherwise they’re about $100. I find these fit pretty true-to-size. I wear a 32 in these, but can also size down to 30 for a slightly slimmer fit. 
  • Rugby university chinos ($70): Rugby’s University model fits very well if you size down. Whereas I’m normally a 32 in most pants, I wear a 31 in Rugby’s. They’re slim and have a rise that just hits the waist. They have a slightly worn finish, which means the colors are a bit faded and the edges are very, very slightly distressed. Nothing really noticeable, but it’s there. 
  • Bill’s Khakis M3 chinos ($67): Bill’s Khakis has three models, but only the M3 is anything that’s remotely close to wearable. Even then, you’ll have to get these slightly tapered. That job shouldn’t run you more than $20, however. So why buy something that doesn’t immediately fit well off the rack? Because these are some of the best chinos you can have after some alterations, and when Sierra Trading Post has them for $65, they’re a steal. They’re superbly constructed and made from a traditional soft twill fabric that’s free of any pre-distressing. They also feature deep pockets (a detail many brands are cutting back on) and have a rise that actually sits on my waist (not “just hits it”). The slightly higher rise will allow you to tuck in your shirt without making your torso look unnaturally big. I recommend sizing down a bit, but not too much. I wear a 31 in Bill’s Khakis. 
  • Ralph Lauren Preston chinos ($75): These are a lot like Bill’s Khakis - great construction, but not terribly slim (these are “grown up” chinos in a very real sense). However, like Bill’s, they hold a lot of potential. They have a slightly higher rise than Bill’s, which I like, but the pockets aren’t as deep. You’ll need to size down quite a bit to get these to fit right. I go down as far as 30 personally. 
  • J Crew chinos ($60-70): I’m not crazy about most of J Crew’s stuff, but I think they’re worth talking about since almost everyone has a J Crew store near them. J Crew has a few different models, but I’ll only speak of the Urban Slim Fit and Bowery. The Urban Slim Fit doesn’t work at all on me, but I could see them fitting well on someone with a lot of junk in the trunk. The Bowery is much better - pretty decent slim fit, even though the construction is clearly more mass market. The price isn’t bad, however, especially given how often J Crew holds sales. You could probably snag these for $40 if you waited for the right opportunity. If you do, I recommend sizing down. I wear a 30 in the Bowery. 
  • RRL Officer Chino ($185): RRL, a Ralph Lauren brand, has has a pair of selvedge twill chinos that wears like selvedge dehim jeans. They’re meant to be worn as such, too - wear them hard and don’t wash them often. Soon you’ll see fades like you would with selvedge jeans (though obviously more subtle because of the fabric). They also have nice details, such as double canvas waistband (which makes them sturdier) and a button fly (which won’t give you a weenie tent like zipper flys do). The fit is a lot slimmer, however, than other models you’ll read about here. Part of this is just the style, but part of it is also to get the fading you want. The cut is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re used to wearing slim selvedge denim jeans, then you might want to consider these. Size down and expect a little stretching (I wear a 31). You can buy them in most Ralph Lauren stores, but if you’re not close to one, you can phone an order in. RRL is also going to get a website up sometime next month, I hear. 
  • Left Field ($198): The nice folks at Left Field sent me a free pair of these to try on. They’re a slightly more workwear version of traditional chinos. The belt loops are big enough to accommodate belts meant for jeans; the stitching is slightly more rugged; and the pants have a slight “work pant” feel. Like with most workwear/ heritage brands, the quality here is heavily in the details. There is a chain-stitched waistband, Corozo button fly, and Japanese chambray pocket bags. The fabric for the pants themselves are a ringspun cotton Japanese twill. I could see these working well for someone who has a Americana/ heritage sensibility. I recommend going true-to-size on these, but note that they fit slightly big in the seat, so you should probably have something more than my non-existent Asian booty if you want to wear these well. 
  • Unis ($228): I know what you’re already thinking. $228 for chinos!? Part of the reason why these are so expensive is because they’re made in the USA (as Eunice Lee explained to someone in the comments section of Well-Spent). As a political economist, I’ll admit, I don’t care for these kind of “Made in the USA” appeals. For me, I just care about fit, styling, and quality, and all these counts, Unis’ Gio chinos are pretty nice. They’re slim without being overly so, have the perfect rise, and feature nice details such as a button fly and Corozo buttons. They have an unwashed version if you need something dressy, as well as a garment dyed rumpled version if you want something casual. I wear a 32 in these, but could also easily do a 30. If money is less of an object for you, I would definitely recommend these. 
  • Others: There are other highly celebrated chinos. Howard Yount and Albam come to mind, but I don’t have any experience with either of them. Incotex and Mabitex are also a favorite for many people, including me, but the fit, styling, and finish on them vary so much that it’s not possible to write a generalizable review. You can find them in the Buying and Selling section of Styleforum, eBay, Yoox, and Gilt. A word of warning on those, however - buying them can sometimes be a gamble since they vary so much. Caveat emptor

Lastly, for those who might be wondering: what’s the difference between chinos and khakis? For pedants, chino is the Spanish word for Chinese. The original material for these pants was a Chinese twill cotton, so they were colloquially called chinos. Khaki is the Hinidi word for “dust.” The original chinos, worn by the British Army, were dyed in a mulberry juice that gave it a yellowish drab shade, now known as “khaki.” Thus, the correct term for these pants is chinos, and khaki the sandy tan color they most often come in. But that’s pedantry; for the most part, the two words are interchangeable.

(photos by pocketsquareguy, The Sartorialist, and J Crew)