For close to 15 years, cargo pants were the joke of the menswear world. They symbolized frat bros who couldn’t lift a finger concerning their personal style.
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They also represented dad fashion not so much in the Balenciaga way but of the man who makes corny, pun-based jokes and always goes for the most practical item – naturally, in this case, pants or shorts with extra pockets.
Cargo pants, too, have gone through their fashion cycle: Cool in the mid-to-late-‘90s, basic by the mid-2000s, and, finally, a laughingstock and symbol of sartorial cluelessness by the 2010s.
Historically, they were developed and worn by the British Armed Forces before World War II and, by the next decade, picked up by the U.S. for the same purpose – to add extra pockets for holding smaller supplies like maps, food, ammunition, and a compass. Into the ‘90s, they picked up steam through a fascination with a military surplus – a key aspect of Grunge style – and after hip-hop and boyband, stars were seen sporting them.
‘90s cargo pants, however, were relatively straightforward: khaki, olive, gray, or black with flap pockets on the thighs. For 2021, this silhouette is simply a suggestion – and a foundation for a plethora of possibilities. Here’s how they’ve been updated:
Military Cargo Pants
These go back to basics, not so much in a nostalgic sense but one of appreciation. We’ve been spotting military accents all over menswear, and similarly styled pants play up history with multiple pockets along with a tapered form.
While the feel approaches dress pants territory, the slim silhouette, clear angles, and hem hitting right at the top of the wearer’s boots all embody military-level precision.
Articulated knees, pockets in all the right places, and a weathered, been-through-this look make these pants look and feel as if they’ve already taken on the world.
Tech Cargo Pants
To some degree, tech pants spring off military inspiration, with a tour through the outdoors, a la Gorpcore. The multiple pockets remain, enhanced through this lens with thinner yet durable nylon and hiking-ready properties like UV and water resistance.
A nylon/cotton blend approaches hiking territory while adding a bit more substance. Exposed hardware and flap pockets veer toward classic workwear without the weight.
At a glance, these slimmer-cut, neutral-colored pants look all set for the office. Yet, construction tells a second, perhaps more impactful, story by adding ultra-durable ripstop properties to material with a slight stretch.
Slim Cargo Pants
Take skinny jeans and add pockets. You can’t get any less complicated. This is the Balmain version of cargo pants, with large zippered pockets replacing the moto-style patches we’ve gotten used to over the past five years.
No one will mistake these for a bro-leaning staple, thanks to the tapered leg leading to a cuffed ankle and the higher, defined waist.
Workwear Cargo Pants
Workwear features like extra pockets and loops, plus sturdy cotton duck, aren’t strictly for the construction site anymore. Instead, workwear-inspired clothing – cargo pants included – takes a heritage approach while lightening up the weight for everyday wear.
These aren’t workwear-inspired – Duluth Trading Company developed a cargo pant that’s tough enough for the rigors of the job site. Yet, as workwear leans more toward everyday functionality, a touch of spandex adapts it toward less strenuous endeavors.
Dickies is the OG of workwear-to-casualwear adoption. They still hold up in the durability department, as these 100-percent cotton twill pants adding cargo pockets to the sides prove.
Patterned Cargo Pants
Camo, florals, or stripes? You’ll find each in a totally modern interpretation. Back in the ‘90s, something like this would’ve been too extreme, but now, we fully welcome it.
Yes, they start with a pattern appearing like camouflage, but once you study the composition, it’s made up of brush stroke-like lines. Adding to the appeal is a tapered silhouette, stretch construction, and drawstring waist.
G-Star has pushed the envelope of denim for a number of years. These cargo pants build off that momentum with a slimmer design and three-dimensional camouflage pattern standing out with pops of burgundy.
Retro Cargo Pants
You can still take a trip back to the early 2000s though, through baggy, pipe-style fits that bunch around the ankles. With Gen Z’ers fascinated by Y2K fashion, this retro-style matches that Grunge meets rave meets sportswear fused aesthetic.
Those who remember cargo pants’ quick rise in the ‘90s will find comfort in this sturdy, classic cotton style featuring a relaxed, almost pipe-like fit.
Dickies found mass appeal over 20 years ago through skaters’ embracing. These cotton/poly blend pants, with cargo pockets, stain, and wrinkle resistance, exemplify why this classic workwear style crossed over.
Hybrid Cargo Pants
Not just an alternative to chinos, cargo accents have infiltrated all styles of pants. You’ll see cargo jeans – skinnies with extra pockets – to lounge and sweatpants with usable flap pouches on the sides.
Part of a collaboration Hugo Boss did with former One Directioner Liam Payne, these unisex jogger-style pants embody peak athleisure with a paneled silhouette while featuring flap cargo pockets.
These pants are pretty much everything: Military surplus in vibe, deliver slim athleisure with a jogger silhouette and classic activewear construction and include flap pockets on both sides.