Spring 2004

Colors / Khaki

For the potential Hemingway in all of us

Ben Marcus

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

To Daniel Harris

If any clothing color is meant to corroborate the spasms of a fantasy that we are not really living in cities or towns where all danger from animals has been removed; that instead some forested adventure awaits us for which we must be properly outfitted; that in fact we are secretly rugged safari people who at any moment will ditch our offices for an impromptu hunt of treacherous elephants, a jeep trip through uncharted veldt; then that color is khaki. No other tint of clothing has so aggressively been used to link mundane office life, well-fed fraternity catatonia, or the Haldol atmosphere of country clubs with robust wilderness trekking and free-spirit nomadism the kinds of behavior, in short, that are the least likely to occur. Now a staple pants color of corporate casual Fridays, it is those Fridays that, rather than encouraging comfort, are meant to announce to our co-workers, as the dumb half of show-and-tell, who we really are, lest they miss it behind our suits and ties: When we wear khaki, we are potential Hemingway characters ready to take up arms against the wildlife, and then to repose over mojitos in cabanas. In truth, khaki is the ultimate wasteland camouflage, what will finally hide people when the last buildings have been demolished and we are reduced to wandering over the desert. The old camouflage of Rorschach greens, browns, and grays, was designed for a planet that still lived and breathed, where warfare might occur in a dripping, ozone-fresh greenhouse, when hiding meant taking cover under a tree. Since those sectors are now either demolished or ossified by longing tourists, and the new warfare is conducted in the sand and dust, with our fondness for green fading into nostalgia, khaki makes the most invisible outfit for the future, a covert skin for battling atop the dead, colorless planet.

The Sahara desert, north of Timbuktu, Mali.

Khaki is so entrenched as a textile concept that one can refer to pants as “khakis” and court no confusion. Are there any other garments so ubiquitous that we identify them by their colors? While blue jeans can faintly evoke the wild west, there is little wild west anymore to evoke the myth has been severally punctured though jeans still (the non-designer ones) bespeak yard labor and trade labor and other sorts of activities that make a person dirty. Their blueness is secondary to the actual texture of their material. Khakis, meanwhile, announce leisure and the aftermath of activity, the sense that something strenuous just happened but has now been cleaned up. Khakis signal repose after the hunt, a patrician costume of earned relaxation that acknowledges the environment of dust and sand but still appears wealthy and dressy. It is no wonder, then, that khaki is the iconographic garment for the well-behaved, well-paid American “person,” who defaults to that color choice because it is apparently the most comfortable; because it seems easy and simple, inoffensive while still slightly stylish, and eminently durable. But since when does color alone provide sufficient sensual comfort against the skin, particularly in the climate-controlled interiors we frequently navigate? And why does almost no one wear khakis that are not khaki-colored, even though marketers frequently pin their hopes on magenta and compost-colored pants cut just like their khaki counterparts? Witness the commercial arc of Banana Republic, at first a retail outlet for the “suburban safari” enthusiast, a ludicrously unsuggestive phrase (wouldn’t wilding count as suburban safari?). Hats, whips, chaps, rucksacks, survival gear, hard-weather performance material, facial salves to toughen the cheeks against desert zephyrs: These were the ingredients of the early marketing efforts at Banana Republic, and this is the identity it still traffics in, even if those products are no longer on sale, even while Banana Republic has fully shifted its line from outdoor to indoor, desert to office, wilderness to city. What happened to the buckaroo mascot and the gutted jeep chassis that punctuated the shop floors? Entering now, one finds instead a rabidly generic set of corporate uniforms in no way linked to the khaki foundation, neat stacks of supposedly staple outfits for men and women that manage to be both extremely unimpressive and readily identifiable as BR wear. The lighting is cold and uniform, so unlike the brilliant sunsets of the savannah. One must push all the way to the back of the store to find its origins, tables heaped in khaki pants with names like Dawson and Emerson, insinuations of rugged individualism rather than what khaki really is: a team uniform for dead people, wishful wear for lifestyle-free people.

If we desire a clothing color for something that will never happen to us, it is only because nearly nothing physical happens to us of our own volition, and we must independently generate the suspicion that it once has or that it will again. Clothing is the ultimate vehicle for this physical advertisement of self, a mating hypothetics we require of each other to share secrets and fantasies, to dramatize our disgusts with our real lives, to show off to others what we might do if we were really alive. Like weekend cyclists in the park who wear elaborate gear not connected to better cycling performance Lycra jerseys emblazoned with Italian advertisements, corporate logo colors disfiguring torsos, insignias of sponsorship covering every body part these accessorizing gestures are meant to announce one’s dreamed inclusion in a theatrical sporting affair that others should admire, since these hobbyists have caught themselves admiring televised cyclists and wish to ape, if not the skill, then the costume of the professionals. These cyclists identify each other’s seriousness of purpose by their gear, but their purpose is not necessarily to cycle. It is similar to fans who advertise the same companies as their sports heroes. The only difference is that the professional is getting paid for his endorsement. And if khaki is not a textual advertisement, it is a spiritual one, though one that has so collectively possessed the nation that it now appears like “basic” clothing, a staple, rugged wear for unexpected times even if it is decidedly unrugged, made of ever-cheapening cotton something that belongs in everyone’s pants drawer. It is innocuous and innocent, free of overt subtext (in other words, it is a successful myth). In khaki clothing, we have managed to dramatize both our past and future, however fictitiously, while rendering a present that is bland and nearly invisible, translucent without being revealing, immensely fragile, however sturdy it appears. We will soon be bumping into people we did not know were there, and khaki will become another name we use for nothing.

Ben Marcus is author of The Age of Wire and String and editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.