There are few more potent symbols of the cultural backwardness of the late 1990s and early 2000s than cargo pants and, especially, cargo shorts. When it comes to now-indefensible trends that were mainstream at the time, they’re right up there with listening to nu metal and supporting the Iraq War. Over the years, they have been the subject of innumerable takedowns, including, memorably, from Jonah Hill’s character, Seth, in Superbad.
But what if cargoes are not an outdated relic but rather a technology ahead of its time?
I’m 33 years old, putting me squarely in the generation of young male consumers who drove the cargo craze. There were stretches of middle and high school when I probably wore cargoes six or seven days a week. Youth-oriented mall-store brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Old Navy had taken cargo pockets, a style with utilitarian, military origins, and reinvented them as a ubiquitous element of mass fashion. Cargoes hit an improbable sweet spot of preppy, punk, and skater culture.
The funny thing is that for most wearers, the defining attribute of cargoes—the pockets—served little to no purpose. Ordinary pockets were up to the task of carrying a wallet and a flip phone. OK, cargo pockets were pretty handy for stashing a pair of sunglasses or a bag of weed. But other than that? I hardly ever put stuff in them. Plenty of blue collar workers appreciated the utility of cargoes on the job of course, but for the masses who turned them into a fashion phenomenon, they were more like tail fins on a 1950s car: purely for show. That might help explain why they came to seem so silly, so dated, so quickly. Millions of young men were walking around with big, empty pouches drooping slackly from their thighs. The only baggage they carried was cultural.
The situation today is more or less the opposite. Now, in keeping with prevailing tastes, I walk around in snugly fitting jeans while an enormous smartphone bulges from my pocket. In other words, while I used to have extra pockets and nothing to put in them, I now have a bulky mini-computer with me at all times that I can’t comfortably carry. This is not sustainable. It’s awkward merely to walk around this way, and the tension becomes so great when I sit down that I’m forced to put my phone on the table like an asshole, as if I’m expecting an important message. And that’s all before considering the KN95 mask and oversized CDC vaccination card that have become as essential as my keys and wallet.
Which is why it’s so obviously time for cargoes to make a comeback. Past time, really. Everyone is walking around with a giant phone and nowhere to put it. The technology exists to solve this problem. We just need to embrace it.
I can already hear your protestations. Cargoes are ugly, you insist. They aren’t stylish. To which I say, borrowing from Shakespeare: There is nothing either stylish or ugly, but fashion trends make it so. You think you like what you like because you have independently judged it to have some objective aesthetic value. This is an illusion. Fashion is like the NFT market: It is based purely on collective fictions about what has value and what doesn’t. (OK, fine—not purely. Some looks seem to stand the test of time. The Oxford shoe and the little black dress come to mind.) Most people just like what’s popular. When enough hot and stylish people start wearing something, that thing becomes hot and stylish. Low-rise jeans used to be sexy; now they look absurd. (If you don’t believe me, watch some Gilmore Girls.) Mom jeans were once ugly; now they’re cute. Perhaps you like to wear yoga pants, which in 2017 outsold denim in the US. But we both know you wouldn’t have left the house in them in 2010.
Plus, and I’m sorry to have to say this, but—you already look stupid. Do you think James Dean would have seemed like such a badass if he had a Samsung Galaxy S10 bulging in his pocket, its blocky outline faded permanently onto the front of his jeans? No, he wouldn’t have. Guess what: neither do you.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for a return to cargoes in the bulky, baggy form they took in 2002. They certainly should not hang below the knee; that helps no one. In fact, I’m not very interested in cargo shorts at all, because existing non-cargo shorts tend to have decent pocket space. My concern is with pants—the thing most grown-ups wear most days, at least when we’re working in person. Happily, a quiet renaissance in cargo design is well underway. Turns out you can buy much slimmer, classier cargoes all over the place, from Target to Louis Vuitton. (OK, the Louis Vuitton ones, whose side pockets are massive and removable, are actually insane; maybe don’t buy those.)
“The cargo silhouette has gotten slimmer, more fashionable—it comes in stretch—so you’re starting to see cargo morph itself,” says Joseph Hancock, a professor of fashion design and merchandising at Drexel University, who wrote his PhD thesis on cargo pants. “Just like how jeans went skinny, then straight leg, and now they’re going back to bigger cuts.”
In fact, Hancock points out, cargoes never really went away. They of course remain a fixture on construction sites. They’re a favorite among outdoorsy types who like to keep a pocket knife and energy gel packs within reach on the hiking trail. And then there are the millions of people, mostly men, who simply don’t care that they’re out of fashion, to hell with what their wives think. The headline of a viral Wall Street Journal article in 2016 captured that dynamic: “Nice Cargo Shorts! You’re Sleeping on the Sofa.”
Five years later, there are signs that tastemakers are ready to budge. Recent articles in places like Vogue, GQ, and Esquire have assured readers that cargoes are fashionable again. Hancock, whose enthusiasm for cargoes is aesthetic as well as academic, believes cargoes are poised to have a moment, buoyed by a pandemic-inspired turn away from style toward comfort and function.
“It’s coming back,” he says, pointing to women’s fashion in particular. “It’s in every type of silhouette you can think of, from full to thin to capri. Gap, during the spring, had three styles of cargo pants. Now they have five. When I see they have five styles, I go, well, they’re investing in this for the fall. Banana Republic, they had one style last year in a dress pant; this season they have three. Levi’s, who I always look at as a global retailer because they’re so popular worldwide, they actually now have four styles of cargoes.”
But Hancock says he expects that trend to peak in the fall and fade over the next year. I’m arguing for something much more radical: Cargoes, or something like them, should become the new jeans. It should be perfectly acceptable to wear them to the office or dinner at a nice restaurant. There is just no reason to keep stuffing these giant phones, AirPods charging cases, and EDC multitools into front pockets where they don’t fit.
Does that mean you’re going to see me walking down the streets of San Francisco with my iPhone tucked into a sleek side pocket? Absolutely not. I’m not a trendsetter. Remember what I said about hot, stylish people? I need you to make this happen, my hot, stylish reader. Only once the fashionable people have made it acceptable will normal people believe we can wear cargoes without looking like a doofus.
Look, I like jeans a lot. They’re basically a napkin that you wear. In my ideal world, we’d go back to flip phones instead of relying on cargo pants to save us. But that’s not happening. Flip phones are dead. At least cargoes still have a fighting chance.
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