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We Settle The Debate: Cargo Pants Vs. Khakis

We’re discovering how these often-confused styles are different, and what makes them unique (and essential) in their own way.

Sure—khakis and cargo pants have similarities: Their traditional coloring (beige, green, tan) is often comparable, and they’re usually made of a comfortable material like cotton. Both pant styles can be dressed down or leveled up and worn to work or on a first date. And, this year, we’re seeing them on celebrities everywhere.

So cargo pants and khakis are the same, right? Not quite, even if you hear them referred to interchangeably. If we had to describe them, we’d say they’re more like fashion cousins, not twins—similar in many ways, but also with characteristics that separate them.

So how do you tell khakis and cargo pants apart? And, which is the more versatile pant style? We’re clearing up the confusion and settling the debate: cargo pants Vs. khakis. Read on to learn about how material, cut, and simple details differentiate cargo pants vs. khakis—as well as how to wear both or choose a style that works for you.

The Main Differences Between Cargo Pants & Khakis

The green cargo pants we are familiar with today, originally known as combat trousers, descended from loose-fitting utility pants worn in the military. They are distinguishable from other pants by the presence of large pockets initially intended to carry tools. Get it? They carry cargo. It’s that easy to remember.

You’ll find these pockets on the side of the pant leg, on the rear, or at the hips—sometimes, you’ll even find them in all three places. You may even find a loop, which is a handy spot for tradesmen to hang hammers and other long tools. You may not be carrying a hammer, but the detail of the loop still carries over into fashionable cargo pants that we see today.

Similarly, you may find that your favorite cargo pants feature a drawstring, instead of a zipper or button fly. This is a small detail that adds a touch of authenticity to a modern design. Today, cargo pants can be oversized or slim-fitting, but the characteristic pockets are still an essential part of their look. 

Much like cargo pants, the history of khaki pants also traces back to military origins, as the cotton twill material was the basis for uniforms. Later, the comfortable pants became a civilian staple. Unlike cargo pants, khakis only include a standard-size pocket, if any at all. The pockets of cargo pants make them a more utilitarian pick.

But What About Chinos?

Are khakis the same thing as chinos? Great question. They certainly look the same, and spotting the differences can be a challenge, even to a trained eye. It’s worth exploring this third style. The word “chino” is actually a nickname, given to the pants because they were made of cotton twill sourced from China during the Spanish-American War. It comes from the Spanish pantalones chinos, or, roughly, Chinese pants. Later, it was shortened in English to just “chinos,” and the name stuck.

What is the difference between khakis and chinos? In general, chinos are a lighter weight cotton twill material, while khakis are a heavier weight cotton twill. Khakis may also be pleated, whereas chinos tend to have a tapered leg and are usually flat-fronted.

Does Color Make A Difference?

In general, khakis (and chinos) orbit around earth tones: tan, beige, and mossy green, dusty pink and even soft blues. Cargo pants, however, are a bit more eclectic: Camo cargos are on-trend this year, but unexpected styles have their place, too. Consider stunning satins in electric colors, all with the telltale oversized pocket. Cargo pants can be found in linen, silk, and even denim, all featuring the oversized pocket(s) that indicates their function.

Two Trends Combine: Cargo Pants + Joggers

If you’re still in deep with the jogger trend—who isn’t? Comfort plus style? Yes, please—you’ll be happy to know that cargo pants in jogger styles are absolutely on trend for spring (just ask Chrissy Teigen.) Featuring the tapered silhouette of a jogger and the oversized pockets of your favorite cargo pants, this style is easily worn with a body-con sweater and heels for brunch with friends or with a simple denim jacket and tennis shoes for a supermarket run. 

What Do You Wear With Cargo Pants?

Let’s explore how to style cargo pants in a way that feels true to you. We’re often asked: Can I make cargo pants smart-casual? Absolutely. It’s all about mixing your personal style with fresh takes on current trends to find what feels right for you.

First, choose the style of cargo pants you want to wear: a slim-fit tapered leg, a jogger, or a straight-leg look. For more tapered cargo pants, dress it up with your favorite heel and balance the toughness with a soft shirt with feminine detailing. Or try a simple stacked heel and your favorite, most comfortable t-shirt for a go-anywhere look cued in to total comfort. To play off the masculine energy of straight-leg cargo pants, pair with a cute crop top in bright colors or a soft t-shirt.

If you’re opting for cargo pants in muted colors, such as the traditional tan, beige, or green, consider playing with pops of color to bring more excitement to the look. Remember, though, that black and white always goes perfectly with cargo pants, even as a simple t-shirt. What if you’re choosing cargo shorts over pants? We recommend playing with height here: A simple wedge or sleek heel can elevate your look and bring a high-fashion element into your style. 

Cue Up Khakis: What Options Are Available For Khaki Pants?

The idea of khaki pants may conjure visions of dads in golf shirts, but, in reality, khaki pants can be remarkably versatile, easy to style, and decidedly feminine. The key is choosing a cut that works for you and then styling accordingly. Like cargo pants, khakis can be tapered and straight-legged, oversized, or wide-legged. They tend to come in more muted earth tones, including traditional green and beige, or more modern hues like light blue or pink.

The truth about khakis is they are a blank canvas that can be paired with anything to create a style. Bikini top, oversized khakis, and flip flops? Check. Turtleneck, tailored khakis, and sneakers? That works, too. If you choose a slim-cut, tapered khaki, consider pairing it with your favorite t-shirt, a denim jacket, and wedge heel.

With boxier cuts, much like cargo pants, you’ll want to offset some of the masculine energy by styling with more feminine touches: crop tops or fitted tees, a slim-cut denim shirt, or tailored sweater. A block heel works with oversized cuts, you can bring back some 90s throwback flair with a platform sneaker and bucket hat, or you can opt for an extra short pair of khaki shorts for a sweet and preppy alternative to denim.

Don’t miss the chance to dress khaki up, either: Pair straight legged or capri khaki pants with a tailored khaki suit jacket for a summer-ready office look that’s comfortable, modern, and (literally) cool.

Accessorizing Your Look

Don’t forget to add a few finishing touches to your ensemble, whether you’re wearing khakis or cargo pants. Bold necklaces balance out the utilitarian nature of cargo pants, while delicate bracelets can complement a more understated style worn with khaki pants. Since both looks are on-trend for spring and summer, add a hat and sunglasses to finish your style. 

Dos & Don’ts For Wearing Khakis & Cargo Pants

  • If your cargo pants are cotton twill, pair them with casual fabrics like cotton and linen. (This goes for khakis as well.)
  • The more structured the pants, the less structured your jacket can be.
  • To dress up your khakis and cargo pants, tuck in your shirt.
  • Don’t pair unstructured, loose khaki or cargo pants with an unstructured top, which can look a bit like a safari uniform.
  • Wear lighter color khakis and cargo pants in spring and summer, but as weather gets colder, opt for darker colors like green, navy, and black. 
  • Do dress up khakis with a skinny belt and tailored button-down shirt.
  • Don’t settle for an imperfect fit: tailor khakis and cargo pants to ensure the perfect length. 
  • Don’t overfill your cargo pockets! Sure, it’s tempting to use those utility pockets for everything, from your cell phone to your car keys, but it will quickly add bulk and destroy the line of your silhouette.

What do you think? Did we settle the debate over cargo pants vs. khakis? Which style do you prefer?

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