What Fashion Anthropologists Think About the Relentless Cargo-Shorts Boom

Photo: Jordan Chez/Getty Images/iStockphoto

During the dearly departed summer of 2016, cargo shorts accounted for 15 percent of new short styles on online retailers, Kim Bhasin noted at Bloomberg, up from 11 percent last summer. Target, the hip/wholesome retailer whose name you may pronounce with a whimsically soft g, accounted for 43 percent of the new cargo-short styles. And why not: Retailers sell over $700 million worth of side-pocketed short-pants a year, Bhasin reports.

Seven hundred million.

On cargo shorts.

What a time to be alive.

The cargo short, quite naturally, evolved from cargo pants, which were apparel-as-equipment for servicemen during World War II. American fighter planes had narrow cockpits, so you needed front-facing pockets to get at your cigarettes, pens, and whatever. Pilots, as has long been known, have always been super cool, and upon coming home, their coolness radiated out through society. Then, in Vietnam, GIs were carrying more and more gear, further necessitating cargo pockets. “Military dress has had this trickle-down effect,” says Kim Jenkins, a visiting assistant professor of fashion design at the Pratt Institute, “and men wore these garments home, and they ended up on the street,” like the comparatively unvilified bomber jackets, for instance, or peacoats, or desert boots.

The 1940s and 1950s saw khakis and chinos become popular leisurewear for men, she says. These came back in the 1990s, reincarnated by Old Navy and the Gap as a new kind of casualwear that landed between jeans and khakis, complete with cargo pockets. Jenkins, whose background also includes anthropology, also sees the decade’s conflict and films like Saving Private Ryan informing the ’90s boom in cargos. “It doesn’t look too different from what you would see in the Persian Gulf War — actual fatigues,” she says.

The practicality and preparedness that made cargo pockets a military staple inform their popular persistence, she says. Having lots of pockets to put things in and thereby not having to lug around a bag is incredibly convenient. Consider this thought experiment: What if you were going out on a Saturday late afternoon and didn’t know if you’d make it back to Brooklyn by evening, but didn’t want your phone to die, but you didn’t want to drunkenly forget your bag in some cab to be named later? Why, don some cargo shorts, throw a charger in the side pocket. And some earbuds, too. Go crazy, there’s plenty of room.

Pockets themselves have historically been coded masculine, as an anthropologist would say, and it took a century of effort for them to become normalized in women’s apparel. The suffragettes of the 19th century pushed for “rational dress,” a smart look with a short skirt over loose trousers, styled like some badass Turkish pantaloons. Activist Amelia Bloomer, editor of the temperance magazine The Lily, loved the look, and her promotion of the look was so effective that the trousers — bloomers — forever bear her name. With the boys off to battle in World War I, women wore pants to their new factory gigs, and the two-piece outfits started really gaining traction. Female pilots pushed trousers and their pockets forward, too. “Until then you had to carry purses,” Jenkins says. “There was more opportunity for men to have pockets in trousers and suits. When you’re thinking about access and how many things you can keep on you, what clothing is accommodating? What do the clothing assigned to masculinity and femininity afford?” Following in that inheritance, cargo shorts give a guy plenty of room to carry and conceal things on his person, though, she also notes, lots of guys may think it’s one (or two) pockets too many. With cargos, the ease is only matched by the bulk.

But not every guy takes the cargo short to be a part of his standard summer wardrobe. To Brent Luvaas, an associate professor of anthropology at Drexel University and the man behind the street-style anthropology photo blog Urban Fieldnotes, the shorts’ “thoughtless” convenience appeals to American males with a particular set of priorities. What’s offensive about cargo shorts, he says, is that it’s the kind of thing you wear if you want to be comfortable and truly do not care what people think of how you look — which itself is a kind of privilege.

“Women hate it when their husbands or boyfriends wear cargo shorts, because it’s a garment that that says, ‘I no longer care what you think of me, I’m comfortable where I am, I’m not trying to change,’ which is not an exciting proposition,” he says. “It does not signal striving. Maybe this is why people wear it on weekends or days off; it’s not associated with work, even though it’s supposedly utilitarian.”

Correspondingly, cargo shorts are closely associated with so-called “dad culture.” Patriots coach Bill Belichick, America’s ruthless but loving stepfather, slays in cargos. (See: “Bill Belichick’s latest press conference outfit is a masterpiece.”) As Belichick, who is legendary for making the cut-off hoodie a thing, confirms, cargo shorts are to be worn when you are psychologically incapable of caring what anyone thinks you look like. They’re a “declaration of not being a part of fashion,” Luvaas says.

Since they’re the “height of utter normalcy,” he says, cargo shorts are a harder geek/nerd/goof/doof/square article of clothing to appropriate in fashion. Thick-rimmed spectacles — remember when they were called “emo glasses”? — had a sort of exoticism to them, encouraging their incorporation into the style lexicon. But with cargos, it’s not that they’re unfashionable, but that they are without fashion. In turn, to be against cargo shorts is to be against a certain kind of “hegemonic” masculinity, he says.

As street style has tilted toward comfort, you could even say that women have gotten less pocketed than before — yoga pants, an icon of feminine comfort extremism, are literally the opposite of cargo shorts when it comes to silhouette: One leaves everything to imagination, the other leaves nothing.

History has seen prescient designers fight pocket patriarchy, Jenkins notes. Claire McCardell’s “Pop-over” dress, now featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was designed in response to a challenge in Harper’s Bazaar to create a dress that you could clean the house or serve cocktails in. Priced at a wartime-friendly $6.95, it sold in the tens of thousands when it launched in 1942. The dress had a slim silhouette — and a smart, slim pouch on the hip. “In utility achieved with ingenuity, McCardell found a synergy,” reads the Met description. “The modern woman could both be chic and do the cooking. In a photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, the model wearing the ‘Pop-over’ has one hand in an oven mitt and the other in her capacious pocket.”

Despite McCardell’s gender-forward innovations — her functional, comfortable designs contributed to what the popular press called “The American Look” — pockets you can fit an iPhone into are far from standard in women’s clothing. Designer-entrepreneur Camilla Olson told The Atlantic that this is indicative of industry sexism, since the (mostly) guys running mid-range fashion design for how fabric falls on women’s bodies, rather than the utility offered by the pieces themselves. “I honestly believe the fashion industry is not helping women advance,” she said. “We [women] know clearly we need pockets to carry technology, and I think it’s expected we are going to carry a purse. When we’re working we don’t carry purses around. A pocket is a reasonable thing.” Unless there’s one (or two) too many. If only, by some working of fashion karma, the excess pockets of men’s non-fashion shorts could migrate to women’s fashion.

Anthropologists Analyze the Cargo-Short Boom