Khakis, like jeans, are a ubiquitous wardrobe staple, equally favored by preppies and fashionistas, the privileged and the underclass, men and women. In a recent issue of LuxuryFinder magazine, wealthy entrepreneur Tim Jefferies?best known as “the man who stole Claudia Schiffer”?says his favorite article of clothing is a pair of Ralph Lauren khaki cargo pants. This from a man who owns a BMW, skis Gstaad and favors Valentino. Did we mention he dates Claudia Schiffer?
The Gap added to khaki cachet with an ad campaign that featured Gene Kelly, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe, all pictured in what was allegedly their favorite pair.
Khakis have an illustrious history befitting their status as the most popular item for work-to-weekend wear. The light-brown cotton fabric was named after the ancient Hindu word for “dusty,” according to Catherine Houck’s The Fashion Encyclopedia, and was originally used for Indian army uniforms. British troops stationed in India in the 1850s soon adopted the fabric when their military whites looked anything but in the arid windswept outpost. The British elite popularized various styles of khakis. Crisp pleated trousers were a favorite of the monarchs in their off-hours (worn with ascots and hunting jackets, of course), while jodhpurs became acceptable attire with the colonists in Africa.
It seems that everyone likes khakis. The big question these days is, Why the great disparity in prices? Are Zegna khakis at $185 really that much better than the Gap’s $38 pair? The answer is it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want well-made, durable pants in a fabric that will hold up to repeated washings, then reasonably priced, sturdy styles from stores like the Gap, Banana Republic and Polo Ralph Lauren are your best bet. You’ll pay more for the Polo name?$58 to the Gap’s $38?but there are small design differences and the lure of the logo.
When made with three-ply fabric instead of rugged cotton, the price shoots up, and with good reason. Zegna khakis, a favorite of The Today Show’s Matt Lauer, were not designed for gardening or walking the dog. These are beautifully made, elegant trousers with a fine drape that gives them a much dressier appeal. Think Cary Grant versus Woody Allen?who would you rather look like?
The addition of stretch and fashion kicks up the retail price for women. Even the smallest amount of spandex helps cotton follow a woman’s curves and flatter her figure, as in the currently popular clean-front side-zips, form-fitting capris, or those with a low rise and slim legs. These styles can be found at the Gap and in designer collections like DKNY and Calvin Klein. The clincher for women is usually the fit over the cost (around $45 at the Gap and closer to $100 for many designer lines).
The ultimate determining factor for anyone looking to add the latest style khakis to his or her wardrobe this season is this: Flat-front khakis are for flat-front bodies, and that’s without holding your breath.