Reader Judy sent me this question via e-mail:
I work in a computer store and we wear a lot of jeans and khakis. As a manager, I also wear skirts, dress slacks, etc., and generally try to keep it a notch up from the “retail crew.” But, khakis are professional, washable, and most of the time pants make more sense in our environment. But I find they look kind of blah on me … just not all that exciting. One issue I have is that I don’t know what kind of shoes to wear with my khaki colored pants. Black looks too dark, brown doesn’t go with everything, but lighter colored shoes look too summery! I do like to wear low to mid heels, FYI. And my better looking blouses and sweaters read as “too dressy” with the khakis.
Please, can you give some advice in your blog for me and others like me? I don’t think I have ever seen a post devoted to khakis, at least in the year plus that I have been reading.
I feel like, for whatever reason, khakis have gradually become the outcasts of the pants world. But it needn’t be so! Khaki itself is a chic, sleek, versatile neutral, and stylish women of every sort adore it in skirt, blazer, and trenchcoat format. Khaki pants are a staple for many working women and can most definitely be worn in creative and eye-catching ways. Here are some tips for keeping your khaki pant looks modern and fresh.
Make sure your khakis fit you properly
Very few humans look good in pleated pants, so I’ll just come right out and recommend investigating flat front styles. Also be aware of pocket placement. Designers seem to think that side entry is oh-so-chic, but if you’ve got any hips or belly that style of pocket will just wing out and look odd. Top-entry pockets or no pockets work best on most figures. Finally, make sure your khakis are long enough, and consider getting a pair hemmed for flats and one for heels/wedges/platforms.
Err on the dark side
In my experience, light khakis tend to be less versatile than darker, more caramel-y khakis. So, for example, this color will work better than this one. (“Celestial taupe” better than “Trench.”) Something in this almost-camel range can be fabulous, too. Pale khakis look nearly white under certain lighting, show stains and marks more easily, and are harder to incorporate into outfits. Warmer, darker tans will play better with a wider range of colors and textures than desaturated, gray-tinged ones.
Stick to relatively weighty fabrics for your top half
Even the dressiest pair of khakis is still a relatively casual choice, so your sweater, top, or blazer should be in the casual family, too. Judy said some of her best tops look too dressy with khakis, and I can see that. The occasional dressy-casual juxtaposition will work but, overall, tops should be cotton, wool, linen, and other weighty fabrics. Slippery silks, anything super shiny, and extremely lightweight or sheer fabrics will likely look a bit odd worn with sturdy, stolid tan pants. Quality tees, button-downs, mid- to heavy-weight sweaters, most blazers, and cardigans should all work well.
Mind your shoe choices
As Judy mentioned, shoes can be tough when working with khakis. I will always, always push cognac brown as a near-universal neutral for shoes, and they work beautifully with most pairs of khaki pants. Gray and tan are also great choices since they’re pale neutrals and create a relatively unbroken line all the way down to the ground. But picking up a color from somewhere else in your outfit is a great way to tie everything together, too. More on that in a moment.
Since I don’t wear my own khakis terribly often I’ve had to root around for some other examples to illustrate outfit ideas. Most of these hail from the runway, but a couple are drawn from street style blogs, with one special celebrity guest thrown in for good measure. Ordinarily, I’d mine my fellow bloggers’ archives for photos, but it seems I’m not alone in my infrequent khaki wearage. Besides I think it’s kinda fun to show that the fancy-dancy designer houses trot these much-maligned pants down the runways!
Naturally, recreating these looks verbatim isn’t advisable, but you can still derive inspiration from how they’ve been styled. Take a peek:
With black, white, and olive
As you’ll soon see, khaki pants work best in neutral mixes. It breaks my heart to say it, but generally speaking pairing your khakis with other neutral colors – chocolate, cognac, white, gray, black, cream, and even the outliers like navy and olive – will create the most reliably chic and modern-looking ensembles. This particular group of garments won’t work for everyone, but the black shoes and belt, white tee, and olive outer layer can be re-created in many ways. And, of course, feel free to mix up the colors using pieces within your wardrobe.
With a pattern that includes khaki
Yeah, I know that’s a crazy-ass fur she’s got on, but you get the idea. The coat and the pants have the same shade in them, and look utterly lovely together. If pairing patterns with your khakis seems challenging, seek prints that have some khaki in them already. Printed sweaters, blouses, and tees are natural choices, but printed scarves that include khaki in their patterns work equally well.
With leopard accents
Leopard and khaki generally look fabulous together, especially if both contain warm tones. But I realize leopard and other animal prints won’t always fly at the office or in the store, at least not in clothing format. If you can sneak in leopard shoes or a belt, though, it can add so much sass to a khaki-based outfit. Keep other elements fairly plain to offset the print.
With Breton stripes and dark accents
Striped tops are another classic choice, but they’re best dressed up with some eye-catching accents. A Breton top and khakis work beautifully on their own, but create a decidedly casual pairing. Add a complementary scarf – olive, red, or a dark floral – and cognac belt and/or boots for a more sophisticated mix.
With chocolate brown and white
Chocolate brown shoes can look a bit strange with khakis since they cause the eye to stop abruptly at the ankle. Overall, lighter shoes work better since they create an unbroken leg line, as the gray shoes shown here do. But chocolate brown itself can work beautifully with khaki, especially in a neutral color mix of three or more shades. Here, white takes that third position, but cream, gray, or even maroon could just as easily stand in.
Denim shirts and khakis worn together can look less-than-chic, it’s true, but they can also make a dynamite combination when styled with skill. As is the case with the Breton top, the key is to accessorize with care. Add an interesting belt, maroon or leopard shoes, a houndstooth scarf, a stack of bangles, a statement necklace, or a soft blazer in a complementary neutral. This combo may not work for most offices during the week, but it’s a great bet for Fridays.
I can’t seem to find any images in color, but this photo clearly illustrates that Jackie O. always looked marvelous in her black tops and khaki slacks. This combo can read a bit austere if left alone, so experiment with long necklaces or patterned scarves to mix things up. As we said for chocolate brown shoes, black shoes look off if they’re the only black element in a khaki pants ensemble, but if black is worn up top, too, it creates some unity. However, doing a black top, khakis, and cognac shoes or boots will look equally chic, especially if you can work a cognac belt or handbag into the mix. (Says the Mayor of Matchy-matchytown.)
For paler khakis
Again, I don’t fully condone these guys, but if you’ve got a pair that needs wearing, this outfit shows a good bet: Utilizing pattern. See how that scarf includes the stone color from the pants and the maroon and olive from the jacket? It ties everything together and allows for the pairing of a dark top with a very pale bottom. Since pale khakis are tough to wear with other solids, I think khaki-containing patterns as bridging pieces are the way to go.
Very few of the examples I found incorporated vibrant colors, but if you’re looking to do so I recommend maroon, burgundy, magenta, orange, or just about any color with red undertones, especially for the warm khakis I prefer. Pairing super-saturated brights and neons with khaki and camel is very trendy right now, but can be tough to pull off, so if you’re feeling leery, stick to reddish shades. Overall, though, I’d say the best way to create consistently chic ensembles is to wear your khakis with at least two other neutral tones and accessorize creatively. Utilize pattern to bridge when you can, mind your shoe choice, and have fun.
Holy PANTS, that got long. But I’m sure I’m still missing a few key ideas, so let’s hear from you: Are you a khaki pants-wearer? Do you find them to be challenging? How do you style yours? What’s your go-to shoe for khaki pants outfits? Think any of the above recommendations would work for your personal style? If you’re a blogger and have a khaki pants outfit to share, link us up in the comments!
Top image courtesy Gap
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