Although often used as the name for the style of trousers themselves, chino is, in fact, the name of a 100% cotton twill cloth.
The trousers’ origins can be traced back to a British military officer by the name of Sir Harry Lumsden, who encountered an issue with troops in his Corps of Guides who were dressed in sparkling white cotton uniforms while stationed in the dusty desert on The North West Frontier of India and Afghanistan, leaving them vulnerable to sniper attacks. He dyed the uniforms with either tea or river mud (the historical jury is still out on this one) and came up with a resulting cloth of a drab yellowish shade, named khaki from the Hindi word for dust. The resulting camouflage kept his troops out of danger.
British officers of the Queen's Own Corps of Guides, 1878.
The camouflage and breathability qualities of the chino cloth were quickly noticed – and quickly adopted – by other military forces: first the British army and soon after American soldiers, who after the Spanish-American War returned singing the praises of khaki-coloured trousers they called chinos. Some etymology theorists argue that the name came from the Spanish word for Chinese “chino” as some US soldiers had their trousers made by Chinese tailors in the Spanish colony. Others dispute this theory.
US Army poster during the Spanish-American War.
Regardless of etymology debates, by the beginning of the 20th century, the sand-colored cotton twill trousers became known as chinos. It wasn’t until after WWII, which resulted in surplus military goods flooding the American and European markets, that chinos were given a second chance at popularity. They became an integral part of the preppy/Ivy League look when former troops resumed their studies and wore them on campus. Other interpretations by youth movements and countercultures sported them as a means of sartorial rebellion. Mr. Kerouac’s image on the cover of On The Road was an inspirational image for this style movement. In the 80s and 90s, casual-wear industry leaders such as Dockers, Gap, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren conveyed chinos as an antidote to suit-wearing conformity, transforming the sand pant of prep, safari, and adventure into the uniform of Casual Friday and university professors.
From military to preppy, chinos proved their versatility through the years dressing men and women (ask Katharine Hepburn) in incredibly varying occasions, making them an ideal trouser for everyday life.