Are We All Really Supposed to Wear Cargo Pants?

Can you please explain cargo pants (and shorts)? They are clearly enduringly popular for men and women, but the pockets seem neither functional nor flattering. What am I missing, and what is the best way to wear them? — Patti, Boulder, Colo.

Once upon a time cargo pants, otherwise known as “the military’s greatest fashion contribution,” were created to fulfill a very specific function: allowing soldiers to carry crucial tools (or cargo). Invented by the British military in 1938 as part of the new Battle Dress Uniform, cargo pants included a field dressing pocket on the side of the right hip for emergency first aid and a map pocket just above the left knee for navigation.

They quickly migrated into the general population, and at this point I think it’s pretty safe to say, cargo pants can no longer be classified as a trend. They have become a wardrobe basic, like the white shirt or the little black dress. No matter what your gender.

Think of them as “a more chic alternative to your classic cotton pants,” said Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada, whose cargo pants are worn by Travis Kelce and Gina Gershon. “Comfortable enough for the workplace and fancy enough for a cocktail hour.”

Cargo pants received some initial criticism when unveiled. (Reportedly one British officer announced, “I’m not going to die dressed like a third-rate chauffeur.”) But it was only a matter of time before the fashion world, which loves to co-opt uniforms of all kinds, discovered them — especially when they became the uniform of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and from there made their way into the rock star wardrobe.

All that semiology, contained in a pair of trousers! Who could resist? They represented utilitarianism, rebellion, war, peace, masculinity, subversion, D.I.Y. practicality. Yves Saint Laurent was arguably the first designer to give cargo pants the high-fashion treatment, when he included a version in his Saharienne collection of 1968. Since then, it’s hard to think of a single label that hasn’t flirted with the style — on all ends of the fashion spectrum. Though they cycle up and down in popularity (big in the 1990s and noughties, less ubiquitous in the 2010s), they never disappear entirely. And at the moment they are having another major … well, moment.

A brief list of the brands that included cargo pants in recent offerings includes Dries Van Noten, Proenza Schouler, Mango, Cos, JW Anderson, Reformation, Valentino and Uniqlo. Vogue called them a “nonnegotiable for spring.” They come high-waist, low-waist and in all sorts of materials: cotton, canvas, velvet, satin.

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