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Are khaki and tan the same color?

This is a common question for those who are unfamiliar with the subtle differences between similar shades of brown. At a glance, khaki and tan may appear identical. However, upon closer inspection, distinct variations emerge.

The Short Answer

Khaki and tan are very similar shades of light brown, but they are not exactly the same color. Khaki is a dull yellow-brown, while tan is more reddish-brown. There are variations within each color family as well. Ultimately, context matters most – khaki and tan may be interchangeable in casual conversation, but when precision is needed, such as for fashion or graphic design, the subtle differences become more important.

Defining Khaki

Khaki is a light brown color with a greenish-yellow tint. The name comes from the Urdu word “khak,” which means “dust” or “earth.” Khaki became popular in the mid-1800s when British and French soldiers serving in India dyed their uniforms that color with a plant called the babul tree. The fabric held up better in the heat than traditional bright military colors.

Today, khaki continues to be a staple neutral color for uniforms and casual wear. It is associated with the military, ruggedness, and the outdoors. Khaki colored clothing is versatile and can be paired with many other shades.

Variations of Khaki

There are different shades of khaki depending on how much gray or green is mixed with the brown:

  • Light khaki is tan-brown with very subtle yellow undertones
  • Khaki has more greenish-yellow brightness
  • Dark khaki is more brown than green
  • Drab khaki is dull and grayish

Defining Tan

Tan is brown with orange, red, or rosy undertones. It takes its name from the reddish-brown color of tanned leather. Tan became popular in the late 1800s as synthetic dyes developed that could produce fast, accurate shades. Before this, “tan” could refer to anything from beige to dark brown.

Today, tan is considered a neutral staple color for clothing, accessories, and home furnishings. It is associated with earthiness, warmth, and the great outdoors. Tan works year-round but is especially popular in spring and summer.

Variations of Tan

Like khaki, tan has lighter and darker shades depending on the amount of red or gray mixed in:

  • Camel is light tan with orange hints
  • Beige is lighter and more yellow
  • Taupe is darker with gray undertones
  • Bronze is reddish-brown tan

Comparing Khaki and Tan

Put side by side, the difference between khaki and tan becomes more apparent:

Khaki Tan
Dull, dusty, greenish-yellow Richer, orange/red/rosy brown
Military and utilitarian vibe Outdoorsy, earthy vibe
Slightly muted and grayish Slightly saturated and warm

Khaki has an air of understated sophistication while tan feels more casual and laidback. Both can work as neutrals, but khaki may suit more formal or professional settings better. Overall, tan has warmer undertones while khaki is cooler.

When to Use Khaki vs. Tan

In most everyday situations, khaki and tan are close enough to be interchangeable. However, some contexts call for careful differentiation between the two:

  • Fashion – Tailoring will specify “tan” versus “khaki” for accuracy in design. Khaki works better for military or safari inspired looks.
  • Interior design – Paints, textiles, and furnishings may opt for tan if a warmer mood is desired. Khaki offers a cooler, more utilitarian aesthetic.
  • Graphic design – Choosing the right shade is important for brand consistency. Khaki fits better with military history museums while tan works for hiking brands.
  • Collectibles – With memorabilia, accurately identifying colors adds value. An authentic WWII khaki uniform looks distinct from a tan leather bomber jacket.

Essentially, the more specialized the context, the more the subtle differences matter. Everyday situations call for a more flexible interpretation.

History of Khaki vs. Tan

Khaki and tan have intertwining histories in military uniforms, sports, fashion, and manufacturing. Here are some key moments:

  • 1850s – Khaki uniforms adopted by British colonial forces in India for camouflage and comfort.
  • 1870s – Tan emerges as a distinct color thanks to aniline dyes developed by William Henry Perkin.
  • 1900s – Both khaki and tan become popular casual colors in clothing as military influence spreads.
  • 1920s – Tan associated with aviation leather jackets and outdoorsmanship.
  • 1930s – Khaki adopted by U.S. military for uniforms and equipment through WWII.
  • 1950s – Khaki becomes a preppy staple for pants, jackets, hats, and more.
  • 1970s – Tan suede and leather rise in popularity.
  • 1990s – Khaki and tan gain favor as neutral earth tones suitable for work and casual wear.

Today, both colors remain go-to neutrals with an air of classic, understated style.

How to Tell Khaki and Tan Apart

For most people, seeing khaki and tan side by side makes their subtle differences easy to discern. However, a few tips can help identify one versus the other:

  • Khaki has hints of greenish-yellow vs. tan’s orangey-red.
  • Khaki is a cooler, duller brown while tan is warmer and richer.
  • Khaki is associated with the military, tan with leather and earth tones.
  • Tan feels more casual and relaxed, khaki more sophisticated.
  • Look inside a garment – khaki linings suggest a khaki color.
  • Examine color names like “drab khaki” or “camel tan.”
  • When still unsure, look at online color charts to compare.

With practice, most people can learn to readily distinguish khaki from tan in various contexts. But when in doubt, looking at color swatches side by side or checking exact color names can help identify those subtle differences.


Khaki and tan are extremely similar neutral earth tones, but they have distinct histories and shades. Khaki runs duller, grayer, and more green/yellow. Tan is richer and more orange/red/rosy brown. The two can usually be used interchangeably in casual contexts. But for specialized applications like design and collectibles, the subtle differences in hue become important. With an attentive eye and color comparisons, most people can readily discern khaki from tan.