So, Just Who Is a Khaki Kind of Guy?

Christopher Corbett is the author of the novel, "Vacationland" (Viking)


Paris in the '20s. Hollywood in the '40s.

Legendary writers, actors, adventurers with style.

All in their cotton khakis.

Casual. Elegant. Khakis just like those we made for you."

Gene Kelly wore khakis.

Norma Jeane wore khakis.

Hemingway wore khakis.

--ad for GAP khakis


Never mind Paris in the '20s and Hollywood in the '40s. What about the Belgian Congo in the '50s? Vietnam in the '60s? Latin America in the '70s? Angola in the '80s?

Never mind Gene Kelly, Norma Jeane and Ernest Hemingway. What about Benito Mussolini? Il Duce? The Scourge of Abyssinia? He swaggered in khaki.

And Der Fuhrer? Adolf Hitler? Sharp dresser. Master of the master race looking masterful in khakis.

Marty Bormann wore khakis, too. For all we know he's still wearing them down in Paraguay. Paraguay is a khaki kind of place. Alfredo Stroessner was muy suave in khaki.

Joe Goebbels, Ric Himmler, Herm Goring, Rudy Hess. Khakis were big Third Reich-wear. Khakis uber alles . Can you listen to the "Horst Wessell" song without thinking khakis? Keep the power ties, pal. Khakis are power. OK, so maybe a specific kind.

But, hey, khakis were not just for white supremacist guys. Heck, no. Black supremacists liked them, too. Haiti's Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier looked great in khakis. So did Uganda's Idi Amin Dada. Did you ever see him when he wasn't crisp in khakis? Patrice Lumumba. Gen. Samuel Doe. Mobutu. Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Jonas Savimbi. Khakis down the line.

Africa brings out the khaki in a man, witness some of the great colonial khaki wearers: Cecil Rhodes, Henry Morton Stanley, Charles (Chinese) Gordon, "Oom Paul" Krueger, Lawrence of Arabia and Ian Smith.

That's right--khakis are not just a black thing. No way. Khakis are for strong men, sure, but a rainbow of strong men. Khakis are a strong man's pants. Somoza wore khaki. Nguyen Cao Ky makes any best-dressed list of khaki wearers. (I like what he did with sunglasses and khakis.) Didn't Che die with his khakis on? Pinochet, Noriega, Trujillo, Torrijos. Hombres in khakis. Fidel still runs Cuba (more or less) in khakis. And while we're calling the roll, let's not forget Pol Pot or Lon Nol. Or Sukarno.

What about great khaki moments in history? World wars are really big khaki times--for all sides.

Erwin Rommel, "The Desert Fox," never went near the Sahara without his khakis. And the lively lads of the Afrika Korps. Khaki poster boys. Monty was a khaki guy, too. (World wars via Hollywood are certainly a khaki time: Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Peter O'Toole. Also, of course, John Wayne.)

And for the Allies: MacArthur. Ike. Patton. (And George C. Scott.) Billy Mitchell, Jonathan Wainwright, Vinegar Joe Stillwell. Bull Halsey. Chester Nimitz. Black Jack Pershing. Marshall Petain. And later on: Westmoreland. And Schwarzkopf. Khakis all the way.

And now let us praise the Daddy-O of khakis. That's right. Ferdinand (I Saw the Fall of the Philippines) Marcos. A very khakis guy. Wasn't he buried in khakis? For all I know they still put fresh khakis on him every day.

Alas, khakis are sort of a right-wing guys thing--though left-wing guys dig them, too. War criminals (Rusty "My Lai" Calley). International tyrants (Saddam Hussein). Small-town bullies (Sheriff Bull Connor). And fascists (Franco). They know what looks good when you're trying to make the right impression during a coup or mass execution. Face it. khakis are what you wear to a massacre.

No matter how you look at it--there's a man in khakis for all occasions. Khakis look good on a leader. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, wore them. So did Jim Jones, founder of Jonestown. And lest anyone think khakis are all serious, crimes-against-humanity pants, don't forget one of the great fun khaki guys of this or any other time--Benny Hill wore khakis.*

Next week: Flannel.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World