Khaki’s military heritage has also been ideal for institutions that aspire to military discipline.

by Vikram Doctor

A 100 years ago, in 1918, with World War I coming to an end the UK faced the challenge of switching an economy, and population, that had been geared for war back to civilian life. A piece in the Times of India (ToI) titled “From Khaki to Mufti” considered how this would impact clothing.

The article noted that 80% production in the UK’s clothing factories was currently for the war, and while all of it would not have been of actual Khaki fabric, the yellow-brown cotton cloth of Indian origin was so closely identified with the war effort that it stood in for all this production. (“Mufti’ for civilian clothes, also had an Asian origin, as the loose nonmilitary clothes worn by Muslim clerics).

In all the events that have been held to commemorate WWI Khaki, as cloth and colour, hasn’t featured much, yet it was to leave a lasting impression on the world. It wasn’t just the British who adopted it. Even before the war the Germans had become interested in Khaki, as they realised how their traditional grey showed up dangerously darkly in warmer climates.

The French were also impressed by the performance of Khaki and by 1935 ToI was able to report that: “the horizon blue uniform of the French Army is to be superseded by Khaki.” The Americans had already seen its advantage in the Spanish-American war of 1898, but participating in WWI speeded up the use of Khaki in the US military.

This was a remarkable transformation for Khaki whose major initial adoption, 160 years ago, was met with suspicion, followed by outright hostility as its use spread. For decades in the 19th century Khaki was treated with contempt, very specifically because of its Indian origins. Attempts to explain its practical advantages were greeted with appeals to history, aesthetics, even religion and romance, with both sides profusely presented in the pages of ToI. It may be because it is brown. As Victoria Finlay writes in Color: a Natural History of the Paintbox, brown has “a curious nonposition in terms of color hierarchy. It is certainly a color – more so than black is, or white – but like pink it has no place in the spectrum.” Painters looked for precious and exotic sources for their reds (cochineal insects), blues (lapislazuli) and yellows (saffron), but brown was found in dirt and death: one source was ground up Egyptian mummies.

‘Khaki’ may derive from a Persian word for dust, and this was the inspiration for its first use. In the hills of Afghanistan the British found that their traditional scarlet uniforms made them easy targets for their tribal opponents. Bright scarlet had worked in earlier centuries when armies were meant to impress and intimidate, but the 19th century was witnessing a fundamental shift in warfare.

Rapid developments in rifle technology made much aiming more accurate. The sniper was now deadly, particularly in uneven terrain like Afghanistan, and armies realised the need for camouflage. A British officer named Harry Lumsden, and his adjutant, William Hodson, were the first to experiment, in 1846-47, with shifting their troops into natural colours and designs more suited to local conditions.

One legend is that they dyed their uniforms with tea, unlikely given the expense of tea at that time. Mud and curry powder are also suggested, along with a vegetable dye derived from the date palm. Whatever its origin, the dusty colour was called Khaki and clad in Lumsden’s troops, the Corps of Guides (now the Frontier Force of the Pakistan Army), became one of the most successful and admired regiments of the emerging British Indian Army. In 1856 the Lahore Chronicle wrote approvingly of an order for sentries to wear Khaki at night, “as being less distinguishable at night.”

In the Rising of 1857, Lumsden’s superiors got a direct demonstration of the stealthy efficacy of the Khaki Corps. It played a key role in the siege of Delhi, with Hodson personally capturing the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah and committing some of the most notorious massacres. Hodson would die in early 1858 in the battle for Lucknow, cementing his status as one of the British heroes of the Rising. Perhaps this played a role in the announcement in September, 1858, by the Commander of Chief of the British army in India that “for the future the summer clothing of the European soldiers should consist of two suits of Khakee, corresponding in pattern and material with the clothing recently sanctioned for the royal army in India.” The resplendent old uniforms were still meant to be worn on formal occasions, but regular wear would be Khaki.

The early 1880s saw a major push towards general use of Khaki, in India and even abroad. In 1883 the Daily News in London noted that a third of the Indian army wore Khaki and it was now “to be issued to the officers and men of all the Indian regiments as undress and service uniform; and the army authorities evidently expect that its use in India will reconcile the army at home to the change.” The previous year had seen its first major international use with Indian troops sent to Egypt. A letter in ToI from Baroda noted resistance from officers at the expense of new uniforms but argued this was balanced by the suitability of Khaki in Egypt “where sandstorms are the order of the day”. The pure white tropical kit (scarlet only had ceremonial use by then) would both be highly visible and soon very dirty, thanks to “the very limited means of washing at command in that desert country.”

Yet this is when the anti-Khaki contingent rebelled. Richard Holmes, the military historian, writes in Sahib: the British Soldier in India, that troops were willing to accept Khaki in the field, “but it was not popular everyday dress amongst British soldiers, shot through as most of them were by a strong steak of dandyism.” Some wore Khaki in the day, but changed into red jackets at night. In 1883 ToI noted that the regimental newspaper of the Royal Scottish Fusiliers listed three reasons why British soldiers avoided serving in India. First was low pay, but second was Khaki “an expensive, ill-wearing material, which makes him ashamed of himself.” Heat and disease only came third, after Khaki. Khaki complaints increased to the point that in 1884 the St.James Gazette could write of a “Khakee mutiny”, only averted by the authorities agreeing to the continued use of white for formal purposes.

A 1883 report from Bangalore made an even more personal allegation, referring to the name popularly used for British soldiers: “since the introduction of Khaki uniform Tommy Atkins no longer possesses the same attraction in the eyes of the Bangalore ladies as his gallant predecessors of the flashy red coasted time and he is, therefore, very much at a discount in the local matrimonial market.” Perhaps the most honest explanation for the hostility to Khaki came from Simla, the leading resort of the Raj. A report on a song and dance show put up in 1884 noted the huge applause for a Colonel who sang these words: “When I first put the uniform on/ Nor this did I reckon upon/ That whether I like it or not/ To chance it for Khaki/ And dress like a darky/ Would be my unfortunate lot.” Khaki, that makes clear, seemed too Indian for many of the British.

But the really professional soldiers stayed firm. Khaki was too useful, for camouflage and hard duty, to be dropped for the sake of appearances. In 1884 ToI reported on troops leaving for Burma “all attired in the useful Khaki uniforms which, if it deprives them of showiness, makes them look as though they were fully prepared for all the grim realities of active service.” It helped that dyes were being developed that prevented the unsightly patchy fading of Khaki, under the bashing of regimental dhobis.

Any doubts about Khaki finally vanished with the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The colour was so ideal for the South African interiors that the British encountered a new problem – the Boers started dressing in Khaki for camouflage and to confuse their opponents. In 1900 a ToI report quoted captured Boers on how easy it was to pick off the Scottish soldiers who insisted on wearing checked tartan kilts, “but not so those who were wearing Khaki.” The writer wondered: was the solution Khaki kilts? Khaki’s drive to domination in the 60 years from 1858 to 1918 was complete. It would only start to fade in World War II due to the development of disruptive patterns as a more effective form of camouflage. Dusty Khaki was also unsuitable for the lush jungles of Southeast Asia, which lead to wider use of colours like Forest Green. Khaki was now just one practical military option among many.

But Khaki had made a civilian crossover by then. As in 1918, when soldiers went back to civilian life, many carried Khaki clothing with them and Americans in particular continued using it. Cotton Khaki pants became the first kind of ‘smart casual’ – more dressy than denim, yet easier to wear, particularly in warm weather, than heavy blue or black wool fabric. The war had also got many women into wearing trousers, and Khaki again was a perfect semi-formal fabric for them.

Khaki’s military heritage has also been ideal for institutions that aspire to military discipline. Police forces started moving into Khaki. Madras was one of the first, in the 1920s, though anti-Khaki feelings persisted in places like Bombay, which stuck to dark blue till as recently as 1981 (and plans to return to blue still keep surfacing).

Most famous, of course, in India is the use of Khaki by the RSS as a sign of discipline. But perhaps the link to the dusty soils of the subcontinent give Khaki a continued appeal, 160 years after the British realised its enduring value.