Khaki means ‘dust-coloured’ in Urdu and was developed by the British military in the 1840s as camouflage in desert landscapes.
While khaki is commonly used to describe a spectrum of different shades, from yellowish light brown to deep olive green, it is originally an Urdu word meaning ‘dust-coloured’. Khaki was developed by the British military in the 1840s, while occupying what is now Pakistan, as an alternative to their traditional red uniforms. Drab clothing allowed the soldiers to better blend in with the desert landscape. By 1884, the colour was used across British regiments and soldiers were called ‘khakis’ because of their uniforms. Queen Victoria declared it ‘hideous’ – but it worked.
Mud, mulberries, coffee and curry is said to have been used to produce the desired shade. But it was a dye prepared from a local palm tree that finally stuck. When camouflaging khaki uniforms were moved out of their desert origins and adopted by armies around the world at the turn of the 20th century – by the U.S. in Southeast Asia and by European nations in the first world war – the shade had become green rather than beige.