Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.
The story of Dockers involves two things that are very close to this Xennial dad’s heart: The 1980s and khaki. But before we dive into the history of chinos and whatnot, let’s consider some other things that come from San Francisco and have anchors on them:
- Most obviously there’s Anchor Brewing, the “grandfather of all American craft brewing,” which ceased operations in July after 127 years as the Bay City’s favorite beer (specifically their hot-lagered steam beer). Their building is now up for sale for a mere $40 million, and the fate of the brand is in limbo, even as its workers round up cash to turn it into a co-op.
- Located in the shadow(s) of the Twin Peaks, Anchor Oyster Bar has been delighting diners with its cioppino, a locally-devised fish stew, since 1977. They also apparently serve a mean green-lipped mussel, which – ok, I’ll just say it – sounds fuckin’ weird.
- Commodore Sloat Elementary School has a literal, 5,000-lb. Navy ship’s anchor on its grounds. It’s fitting, of course, since the school’s namesake is the American officer who claimed the city in the early days of the Mexican-American War. Sloat was the military governor of California for most of July 1846, and kept his territory in part by teaming up with the never-recognized California Republic you know from the state flag.
Anyway, that’s enough stalling. The history of khakis and chinos… I mean, look. We’re all grownups here. They started with colonialism, okay? The pants come from British India, where mid-19th century fighters finally decided to ditch the red coats and sew up some more suitable unis for the subtropical climate. They named their new, casually-camouflaged fabric for the Hindi word for “dust-colored” – khaki.
The etymology of “chino” is a little trickier. The common story says that U.S. soldiers stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War1 applied the moniker to their made-in-China uniforms that happened to look a lot like British khakis.2 But meanwhile, Webster says the etymology is unknown, and that the word “chino” isn’t attested until 1943, nearly 50 years after the Spanish-American War.3
Like seersucker, chino fabric gradually took on a preppier connotation throughout the 20th century. Some time in there, San Francisco’s already-famed Levi Strauss Co. decided that if anyone was going to sell khakis and chino to American men, it should be them. It wasn’t until 1986 that they spun that business off into a new brand called Dockers, “inspired by the comfortable, well-worn clothes of the working man” – and complete with an anchor logo to, uh, remind you of stevedores, I guess.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to tie a sweater around my neck and toss around a football while reminiscing about my favorite scenes from Top Gun.
- The story is mum on why they went with the Spanish word – which is why it’s pronounced “chee-no,”por supuesto. (If you’ve been calling your pants “chye-no” all this time, uh, stop that.)
- The words have been nearly interchangeable ever since – but not totally. As one New Zealand outlet puts it, “Today, khakis connote workwear — pants made out of thick, hard-wearing twill, whereas chinos are generally lighter and more pliable.” Your author is wearing chinos right now, because homeboy likes a stretch.
- By the way, Webster, it feels like there must have been good enough record-keeping in 1943 that we could have kept track of this word origin. You managed to figure out where “defuse” came from.