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Why the Cargo Shorts Comeback Actually Makes Perfect Sense

You don’t need deep pockets to see the sartorial, economic and cultural trends all intersecting at once. Could the much-ridiculed military style actually… stay fashionable?

This year has had no shortage of apocalyptic phenomena: a deadly pandemic, Asian murder hornets migrating to North America and a laundry list of natural disasters. And now, you can add to those calamities a burgeoning threat: the return of cargo shorts. 

Nostalgia for the utilitarian garment took over Twitter the other day when New York Times reporter and social media supernova Taylor Lorenz participated in the “normalize” meme with this tweet: “We need to normalize men wearing these again,” along with a picture of tried-and-true Old Navy cargo shorts. 

But rumblings of their return don’t come from Lorenz alone. As recently as July, Esquire declared, somewhat reluctantly, “Yes, the cargo short is back.” The chatter is in the streets, too. When I told a good friend I was writing about cargo shorts, he mentioned that he recently visited ASOS in search of trendy plus-size clothes for men. “I was on ASOS for the first time in like nine months doing the thing of, like, ‘Maybe this is where people buy cute clothes online? Plus-size men’s clothes? What are lewks?’ All I saw were cargo pants,” he texted. 

Cargo shorts becoming trendy was shocking in part because of how much their popularity has waned in recent years. In fact, they had their most popular year in 2016, when they accounted for 15 percent of all new shorts styles in online retailers, according to Bloomberg. But it was also the beginning of the end: That same year, cargo short sales declined for the first time in a decade. 

They first appeared on the legs of British infantry soldiers in 1938. By the early 1940s, the pants were adopted by American soldiers, with slightly smaller pockets, as a way to carry ammunition, maps and other military paraphernalia. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990s that, per Uproxx, cargo shorts lost their association with military preparedness and instead were seen as “lazy weekend wear.” (As MEL‘s Quinn Myers reported this year, real military guys never use those big pockets.) In the process, cargo shorts have become one of fashion’s biggest contradictions: They seem to be for people who have a lot to carry and somewhere to be, and yet, the people who wear them are often depicted hanging around with little going on. 

As cargo shorts reigned as the prime way to cover men’s butts, they also became the butt of every cultural joke. In 2007, Superbad featured a scene in which Jonah Hill chided Michael Cera by saying, “Nobody’s gotten a handjob in cargo shorts since ’Nam!” Meanwhile, when hosting Saturday Night Live in 2011, Zach Galifianakis played a character named “Guy From Queens Who Is Obsessed With Cargo Shorts.” A year later, cargo shorts got Michael Jordan ousted from a golf outing at Miami’s La Gorce Country Club. And in 2016, cargo shorts were dealt a deadly blow with a Wall Street Journal piece about the growing #resistance to the multi-pocketed men’s closet staple. 

As for their return to the zeitgeist, it’s likely due to sartorial, economic and cultural trends all intersecting at once. For starters, there’s the 20-year cultural trend cycle. In the 2000s, the 1980s were cool again. In the past decade, the 1990s ruled, and as we enter the 2020s in earnest, the 2000s will rule once more

Of course, cargo pants and the 2000s were somewhat synonymous; just check out any episode of Next or Date My Mom and you’ll see a dude donning a puka shell necklace and sheathing his legs in a pair of them. In fairness, the early 2000s needed cargo pants, as mobile phones were becoming a part of everyday life, not just a luxury for Wall Street bankers. With fanny packs mostly out of vogue and man purses still too gay to incorporate into a guy’s wardrobe, cargo shorts emerged as winners in terms of both fashion and utility. 

Speaking of utility (and pockets in particular), it’s back in a big way fashion-wise. Costumer and fashion historian Jane Love says that when she saw fellow fashion historian Shelby Ivey Christie in a recent Teen Vogue spread, the first thing she noticed was her pockets. “Pockets and technical will be the direction of what was formerly athleisure,” Love tells me. 

Part of that comes from the peculiar political moment we’re living in. Amid the Trump presidency and its lack of response to the coronavirus and police brutality, protesters have occupied the streets to voice their opposition to the federal government. That political response lives in our clothes, as well, according to Love. “There will be a sense of political response that is going to be sartorially coded in camo and tech fabric and the other mirrors of army fashion, pockets especially,” she says. “The enduring image of the time is resistance.”

Along those lines, in reaction to the Spring 2019 menswear offerings, Vogue coined the term “warcore,” which describes “tactical” clothing that gives a “sense of survivalism.” 

That said, as with any fad that rises from the dead, the cargo short of 2020 isn’t the same as it once was. “Usually when an old fad comes back into style it’s about reinventing it,” explains Brian Cahill, a Brooklyn-based stylist. “Dior Homme for Spring ’21 is a good example because all of the pockets are placed on the front instead of the side and the silhouettes are shorter and boxier. It’s more sophisticated.” He also points out that in May, Vogue listed cargo shorts as one of its “7 Summer Shorts Trends That You’ll Be Living In All Season Long” under a section entitled “Utility.” 

That cargo shorts are now both more fashionable and less restricted by gender seems like a correction to their previous problems. After all, there’s a long, sexist history as to who gets pockets and who doesn’t — e.g., pressure to make women appear thin often meant that women’s clothes wouldn’t allow them to carry anything. But in the 2010s, pockets in women’s clothing became more in vogue as iPhones became an essential part of life, not to be tucked away in handbags.

So while the revival of cargo shorts in 2020 may induce an eye roll — certainly any call for them to be worn again by lazy bros should be criticized — when people say “cargos are coming back,” these aren’t your Gen Xer’s cargo shorts. They’re all about reclaiming the rights to pockets and fighting for social change. Because rest assured, as the world burns, we will all, regardless of gender, need access to the stuff on the sides of our hips.