Oi Polloi

Even God wears khakis

Published: Wed May 11 2011

How a simple Urdu term went on to become synonymous with the Ivy Look via two World Wars, colonialism, numerous Rastafarians and a living God.

We’ll start things off with the trivia…The term Khaki comes from the Urdu word to mean ‘dusty’. The fabric came about when a chap by the posh-sounding name of Sir Henry Burnett Lumsden got fed up of his stuffy uniform and adapted his more comfortable cotton pyjamas with dye. He’s widely acknowledged as the inventor of military khaki. In 1846 he put together a collection of soldiers to serve in the particularly ‘on-top’ area of the Punjab, where British India met Afghanistan. They needed to dress the part and their usual clobber didn’t suit the terrain or the temperature -  so in came khaki.

During World War Two, having noticed their soldiers were a mob of bad scruffs, the US army bigwigs sought a comfortable, durable fabric to bring them more in line with their typically dapper British counterparts. That fabric was khaki. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. That’s what the Americans (probably) said before calling someone a ‘jerk’ then eating a dead big hamburger. Or summat. Only kidding. We like Americans really.

Following World War Two khakis were worn in less familiar surroundings. Times were tough, and they were seen as an affordable but stylish option. Returning heroes were depicted clad in khaki, enhancing the popularity of khaki further. As the austere 1950’s gave way to free love, mind-bending indulgence, rule breaking and showing off, khakis came into their own, epitomising the free and rebellious spirit of the time. With returning G.I’s given the opportunity to attend college, khaki was popular on Ivy League campuses – in particular the US Army issue, button-fly khakis. At the time they were described as “so square, they’re hip” – something we identify with here at OiPolloi.

Down in Jamaica, the 1966 visit of Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, helped popularise the khaki suit. Born Tafari Makonnen (‘Ras’ meaning ‘head’, therefore Ras Tafari, fact fans) his presence in Kingston was huge news. As someone who could trace his ancestry back to King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba his credentials were clear, but the Rasta brethren saw him as more than just a king – believing the prophecies of Marcus Garvey indicated him to be a living God.

Thousands of followers greeted Selassie on the tarmac at Kingston airport. His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (as he is known amongst Rastas) was initially taken aback by the crowds (and most likely the thick fog of ganja-smoke). Crucially to our story – when Selassie finally emerged from the plane he was resplendent in a full khaki suit – it’s no surprise then that his attire became the deck-out of choice amongst Rastafari followers, reggae soundsystem dj’s and the ‘yout’ that followed them. There’s a familiar irony here of course, with the khaki fabric seeing it’s first action in the midst of colonialism, only to find it’s way into the appreciation of those who represented the polar opposite. Who’d have thought something like khaki would end up transcending social, racial and political boundaries? It might have something to do with that thick fog we mentioned.

Meanwhile back in the US, the Vietnam War had a huge impact on the counter culture, with fashions changing quicker than free-love participants changed partners. Despite this, khakis continued to remain a wardrobe staple, to coin an overused phrase. Well, that’s if those long haired beardies in the 60’s had wardrobes. They probably had wooden suitcases with lovehearts and rainbows on them, and a special compartment for jazz cigarettes and poems about trees that cry.

But back to khakis…

Designers tend to use their youth as inspiration, which leads to 20 year cycles. As a result, khakis enjoyed a resurgence in the 80s and have remained popular since. Levi’s produced it’s first khaki trousers in 1906 (under it’s ‘Sunset Label’ – put that in your notebook) and it was this first foray into khaki production that was to evolve into the Dockers brand. In recent times Dockers have gone on to become regarded as the quintessential pair of khaki trousers.

It’s not just Dockers though. Chinos or khakis have been done very well by a multitude of modern brands. Albam, Engineered Garments, Heritage Research, Norse Projects, Universal Works…we could go on…They’ve all done their own take on these most versatile of trousers and it with the weather here in the UK so notoriously changable during the summer months, you’ll be needing a pair of khakis sharpish.

The idea of taking a shine to clothing meant for one purpose, then wearing it in a different way is nothing new but if there is a finer example of this practice than khakis, we’re yet to see it.