A shortened version of cargo pants worn by American soldiers during World War II, cargo shorts have always been seen as tactical wear without any tact. Especially after a 2016 Wall Street Journal story about a woman who defiantly disposed of her husband’s cargo shorts, they’ve become both a punchline and one of the more socially acceptable affectations to hate. So much so that since that WSJ article, cargo short sales have declined for the first time since they were popularized in the 1990s.
Maybe it’s for the best then that no one knows where their forefather — the cargo pant — came from. “There are lots of myths about the origins of cargo pants because nobody really knows the true story,” explains Joseph Hancock, a professor of merchandising at Drexel University and the leading scholar on cargo pants (who impressively wrote a 328-page thesis on the topic). Basically, all we’re sure of is that they emerged in 1936 in the American, British and South American armies simultaneously, likely due to shared manufacturing facilities where military designers would steal each others’ ideas. Cargo pockets as we know them today were initially placed higher up for easier access — until commanders complained that too many soldiers were putting their hands in them. (They were promptly moved down.)
On the flip side, it’s much easier to pin down the cargo short origin story. They’re inspired by Kenyan convertible pants, which emerged in the African military around the same time as the cargo pants, but could be turned into shorts. “The idea actually worked in reverse,” Hancock says. “You’d put the extension on when it was cold, and then you’d wear the shorts normally.” (Until recently, showing a little leg wasn’t widely acceptable for heterosexual men, so giving them the option to zip part of their pants back on made the transition to true shorts less daunting and emasculating.)
Today, cargo short hate is usually for aesthetic reasons. And to be fair, they can create a silhouette that magnifies pancake-assed flaws and generally makes men look like teenage boys. But there’s also a poser — dare I say, stolen valor — quality that’s undeniable, too. “I feel like cargo shorts are more of a dude-bro thing for faux-vets — like guys who play Call of Duty and buy a bunch of guns,” Zach, a 34-year-old former Marine, tells me. During the time he served from 2005 to 2009, he recalls wearing cargo pants often, but never cargo shorts because of this association. “They’re for the kind of dudes who claim to be more patriotic than actual vets and just drink Mountain Dew and post cartoon frogs.”
“I think it’s fair to say it’s a lighter form of stolen valor,” says Justin, a 37-year-old vet who served in the Marines from 2001 to 2005. “Cargo shorts have always been more a bro thing, but a lot of bros are in the military so there’s overlap.”
Hancock notes that the notion of stolen valor depends on whether the brand is focused on fashion or function. “Stolen valor may come from non-fashion, or more functional brands such as L.L.Bean, Eddie Bauer or Patagonia,” Hancock explains. “But I disagree that stolen valor comes from fashion brands such as Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as they all do cargo shorts.”
As a cargo-shorts apologist myself, I’ve long based my stance on their functionality over fashion. I love pockets as much as I love men who don’t ask me to carry their phone or wallet in my purse, so cargo shorts have always seemed practical. That’s why I was completely surprised to learn that both Justin and Zach were instructed by the Marines to keep those big pockets crisply starched, ironed flat and absurdly empty when they were on the base.
“It would definitely make more sense if we were allowed to use the pockets,” Zach laughs. Soldiers historically used them in combat zones as “trash pockets” for empty magazines, but by the time Zach and Justin served, there were less cumbersome options for disposing of magazines and carrying heavier items, like using a pouch around their waist. “Anytime anyone did put anything in those pockets, it was clunky and would bounce around if you were moving at all. It would be a nightmare,” Zach says.
In the rare instances Justin put anything in his cargo pockets, he stuck to lightweight items. “Snacks and non-essential items mostly,” he says.
All of the above is also true for Frank, a 45-year-old who served 15 years in the Navy. “In my day, we had these ball-crushing khaki shorts,” he tells me. “But if we had cargo shorts, we’d have to keep the pockets empty and ironed flat, like Marines.”
To him, the idea that they’re stolen valor is funny — particularly when he uses it to playfully roast his friends who never enlisted. “I have this buddy who wears all-camo cargo shorts all the time, and I give him a ton of shit because he never served,” Frank tells me. “But if someone was so fragile not to wear them because of that, most soldiers would think that’s hysterical.”