When was the last time you went on a New Taiwanese Cinema kick? I just watched A Brighter Summer Day and I’m pretty excited. It has been a while since I’ve been invigorated by the cinema, and even longer since a four-hour foreign-language epic really inspired me. That must say something about Edward Yang; as for the rest of the New Taiwanese Cinema, I’ll keep you posted as I work my way through some of the classics.
But I thought about you often when I was watching A Brighter Summer Day, not so much for the tender portrait of a dislocated family dealing with the stress of uncertain new circumstances, but for the khaki. Ralph, the film is a symphony of that dun-coloured chino, a fantasia of white T-shirts and loose-fitting army pants. It could probably inspire a whole line for you.
It also arrived in my life at this particular moment, when I’m writing you about chinos and obsessing over military clothes. I’m not a believer in the power of coincidence, but I do think patterns in our thinking sometimes become apparent when the same thoughts are presented in two different contexts. So, when the three things that are really “inspiring” my style are Kurdish guerillas on the frontline against ISIS, an American Experience about William Alexander Morgan and a bunch of Taiwanese pre-teen gang members in a period piece, the thought simply has to be: you’ve lost your shit. The fact that I am increasingly drawn to clothes I would never feel comfortable wearing is a metaphor that doesn’t need that much unpacking.
The khaki (and its broader iteration, the chino) is one of those bits of clothing that is so ubiquitous you can easily forget how remarkable it is. The now interchangeable names – only fashion wonks differentiate the two terms properly – both speak of empire, of conquest and resistance, of hard work and R&R.
Khaki, a particular shade of pant, takes its name from the Urdu word for dust; this is the echo of empire, of Victorian-Era English soldiers in colonial militias. Chino, the pant in any colour, comes from the Spanish word for Chinese; here we taste the dust kicked up by the horses of the Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and bask in the enduring light of images of American GIs during the Second World War.
This is one of my favourite parts of the history of clothing, combining linguistic migrations, specific local craftsmanship, and the form of globalization that existed before the Internet and rapacious late-consumer capitalism. Like how ‘denim’ was a specific type of weave that originated in Nimes, France. Or how Madras is a place with a local economy that centred around vegetable dyeing and hand-weaving coarse cotton fabrics. Chino–again, the Spanish colonists’ word for Chinese–lands stateside as the style of light-weight weaving that would give the western world its most boring pair of pants.
Because despite all the hype and history, no matter how many Taiwanese period pieces or WWII picture books you flip through, the chino is truly boring. It is boring in ways both glorious and inglorious, because the pant itself gives nothing to the wearer. The pant is a blank slate, waiting to be imbued with the power and prowess of the wearer or to echo the dullness of the much-maligned casual Friday fool. On Steve McQueen and Jack Kerouac it seethes with post-war American bravado. In look-at-me-red on Anthony Weiner it becomes as dangerous as it sounds. It makes as much sense onboard with JFK as it does in a strip mall electronic store. It is everything and it is nothing.
My favourite pair doesn’t come from Polo (we’ve talked about the rise and inseams of your pants before so I won’t hound you about it again) but from Dockers, the business casual division of Levi’s. These are from their now discontinued K1 line, patterned exactly on the button-fly standard issue army chino of the 1950s. The branding on the inside reads:
“Khakis may not be fancy but it probably isn’t a good idea to call them boring either. Men wearing khakis won two world wars, wrote the great American novel and discovered a little thing called relativity. Nope, khaki may not be fancy. But it is far from ordinary.”
I get it. That’s branding. No one is going to write on a label inside of pants “the wearer of these clothes is entitled to be as boring or as exceptional as they can be”. No one is going to promote the idea that the person who set up your laptop from the Geek Squad was wearing khakis or that a man in chinos did your basic tax return at H&R Block.
I want my clothing to be heavy on history and detail (I dare say with a touch of authenticity) while recognizing how futile these pursuits are. That conflict is why I am writing you these letters, to try and exorcize the demons inside of me that turn classics of international cinema into a look book full of pre-teen gang members and has me Google-mapping the locations of Toronto’s best army surplus stores.
It’s not unlike how I feel there is nothing profound to say about khakis, and yet I know I have something profound to say about khakis. No one knows the difference between those faithful army reproductions and the Polo brand chinos I buy whenever I see them on sale.
So here I am, an average man in average pants.
With warm regards,