Cargo pants have come a long way since their utilitarian beginnings. Once viewed as drab and purely functional, cargo pants have become a staple closet item that is comfortable and stylish.
From Military Origins to ’90s Fashion
Cargo pants first emerged in the late 1930s as part of military uniforms. Large pockets on the side of the legs allowed soldiers to carry ammunition and supplies quickly. While practical, these bulky cargo pants were far from fashionable.
In the 1980s and 1990s, cargo pants began to gain popularity among civilians. Skaters, ravers, and hip-hop heads adopted the oversized silhouette and pockets. Soon cargo pants became a signature look of ’90s fashion—brands like Old Navy and Gap mass-produced cargo pants and shorts for mainstream consumers.
The Rise of “Utility Chic” in the 2000s
At the turn of the millennium, cargo pants took on a more stylish vibe. With slimmer silhouettes and trendy colors, cargo became a staple in the “utility chic” look. Luxe designers like Stella McCartney released their takes on cargo pants.
Celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton were frequently photographed wearing low-rise cargo pants and shorts. The pants worked well for the boho chic and beachy looks that were popular then.
Modern Takes on Cargos
In recent years, cargo pants have shaken their overly casual reputation. Contemporary brands have reinvented cargo into something sleeker and more fashion-forward.
Current designs incorporate jogger cuffs, tapered legs, cropped lengths, and elastic waistbands. Lighter-weight fabrics in colors like olive green, beige, black, and white have given cargo pants a more elevated look.
Leading designers have also shown cargo on the runway. Brands like Alexander Wang, Sacai, and Simon Miller have all offered modern takes on cargo pants.
Why Cargos Keep Coming Back Into Style
So why have cargo pants remained so pervasive decade after decade? This utility item continues to come back into style for a few reasons.
The relaxed fit and casual fabric of cargo pants makes them an extremely comfortable item to wear. The extra pockets add convenience as well. For many, cargos are a weekend wardrobe staple.
Cargo pants are so varied in style that they can work for all sorts of looks. Dressed up with heels and a blazer, cargos take on a sophisticated vibe. They become laidback weekend wear worn casually with sneakers and a graphic tee.
For those who came of age in the ’90s and early ’00s, cargo pants are full of nostalgia. The pants bring back memories of childhood and simpler times. Millennials, in particular, have fueled the revival of cargo.
Lastly, the utility and function of cargo pants still appeal to many. The roomy side pockets are perfect for holding a phone, wallet, keys, and other essentials. For some, cargos are still primarily about pragmatism.
Key Styles & How to Wear Cargo Pants
Cargo pants now come in an array of silhouettes and styles. Here are some of the most popular modern cargo styles:
Cargo joggers have an elastic waistband and cuffed ankles. They create a sporty, casual vibe perfect for weekends—pair cargo joggers with a hoodie and sneakers.
Cropped cargo pants end at the ankle or calf for a leg-lengthening effect. Wear them with wedges or block heels for weekend drinks.
Wide-leg cargo pants have a roomy, relaxed fit through the hips and thighs. Balance the volume on the bottom with a slim-fitting top.
Cargo pants with a drawstring waist are comfy and adjustable. Wear them low on the hips for a laidback look.
For a more polished vibe, choose cargo pants with skinny legs. Tailor them to end just above the ankle.
Cargo Shorts for Warmer Weather
When temperatures rise, cargo shorts are the leg-baring counterpart to cargo pants. Cargo shorts maintain all the same utility and comfort as pants but in a shorter silhouette.
The most figure-flattering cargo shorts sit above the knee and have a slim or tailored leg. Avoid overly long shorts that hit below the knee.
Pair cargo shorts with casual footwear like slides, sandals, or canvas sneakers. A fitted tank or T-shirt balances the volume of the shorts.
Key Pieces to Buy
Some cargo pants stand out for their excellent design and quality. Here are five top picks across various prices:
- Old Navy Built-In Flex Cargo Joggers – Under $50
- Everlane The Way-High Drape Pant – $78
- Madewell Slim Wide-Leg Cargo Pant – $128
- Vince Balloon Leg Cargo Pant – $295
- Rag & Bone Fit 1 Slim Fit Cargo Pant – $325
Cargo Pants Are Here to Stay
While cargo pants have evolved over the decades, their intrinsic utilitarian appeal remains. It’s precisely this versatility and comfort that makes cargo a closet staple season after season.
From streetwear to high fashion, cargo pants continue to reinvent themselves in new silhouettes, fabrics, colors, and details. Love or hate them, cargo pants aren’t going away anytime soon. Expect this multifunctional staple to return in style for years to come.
Cargo pants have gone through an impressive evolution from functional military garb to mainstream fashion staples. Their staying power comes from the comfort and utility they provide and the sense of nostalgia they evoke. Today cargo pants are available in more stylish fits and fabrics but retain signature details like oversized pockets. This balance of form and function is why cargos remain a go-to item decade after decade. Whether dressed up or down, cargo pants are a versatile closet addition worth investing in.
What are cargo pants?
Cargo pants are loose-fitting pants characterized by large pockets along the sides of the legs. They originated as utilitarian-military garb but became a mainstream fashion trend in the 1980s and 1990s.
Why were cargo pants invented?
Cargo pants were initially invented in the late 1930s for British and then American troops. The large side pockets allowed soldiers to carry ammunition and other supplies easily.
What makes cargo pants different from other pants?
The defining characteristic of cargo pants is the oversized cargo pockets, usually visible along the side of the legs. These roomy pockets provide a functional utility that became part of the pants’ signature style.
Who first made cargo pants fashionable?
Skaters, ravers, and hip-hop heads popularized cargo pants in mainstream fashion in the 1980s and 1990s. Brands like Old Navy and Gap made cargo widely accessible to everyday consumers.
Are cargo pants in style for 2022?
Yes, cargo pants are still trendy in 2022 but in more stylish iterations. Designers are reinventing cargo in joggers, wide-leg, and cropped silhouettes in modern fabrics and colors.