By Dan Solberg
A couple years ago, as part of a trip to Austin, Texas, I found myself at a pre-party gathering among a circle of shorts-clad strangers on a hot summer evening. My shorts were the only ones in the group sporting side-mounted cargo pockets. Although I don’t remember the particulars of the jibe, cargo shorts were at one point the subject of public ridicule, prompting me to shrink out of the circle in an attempt to escape amidst the laughter. Though I didn’t think the person was specifically mocking me, for the rest of the night I did my best to direct attention anywhere but my spare pockets. Whether or not I was successful at this matters not; the point had been made. Cargo shorts aren’t cool.
In the wake of my Austin trip, I have yet to don the cargos again; I’m too embarrassed. Plus, despite not caring if people think I’m fashionable, I do care if they think I’m unfashionable. And I’m not alone in experiencing a wave of revilement directed against cargo shorts and their respective wearers. At some point, cargo shorts turned a corner from being acceptable khakis to an outright faux pas, and it’s difficult to gauge whether that has more to do with me aging out of a style or a style simply falling out of favor. Before I decided to put my cargo shorts away for good, I conducted an amateur investigation to figure out what created the cultural circumstances for cargo shorts debasement and why didn’t I know about it.
For the uninitiated—or those who’ve blocked them from consciousness—cargo shorts are distinguished by external pockets on either the side or front of the leg. These pockets commonly close by fastening a flap that’s attached just above the opening. This design dates back to their integration into military uniforms, most notably in the pants of American paratroopers of the 1940s. Paratroopers needed to be able to jump out of airplanes and land in hostile territory, ready to engage. The cargo pockets on their pants could hold extra ammunition, or other helpful supplies, and the flap would keep those items secure during freefall. Although cargo shorts are a civilian adaptation, some aspects of their utilitarian design remain and recall the martial components of the garment’s appeal.
As a man whose wardrobe predominantly spawns from suburban shopping malls (perhaps my first mistake), cargo shorts are part of the limited variety of warm weather pants at my disposal. Without cargos in the rotation, I’m stuck wearing the same boring pairs of basic khaki shorts all summer. I’m willing to acknowledge that cargo shorts aren’t typically the most attractive pants, but it is comforting to know that I have two extra pockets handy, should I ever need them. In general, I don’t wear shorts very often in my adult life and as a result, I haven’t bought many new pairs in the past decade. In fact, I still own a pair or two from college and at least one from high school (perhaps my second mistake).
Utility always played a major role in the appeal of cargo shorts for me. Even when not loaded to capacity, cargo pockets present an image of utility, imbuing the wearer with an aura of practicality. Admittedly, while cargos project a visage of rugged resourcefulness in theory, in practice, I use them more like SUVs: designed for backwoods excursions, but only driven on paved surfaces to ferry between home and office. Still, I clung to the notion that cargo pockets are perfectly capable of “going off-road,” even if their survivalist façade merely deflects a more domestic reality.
In truth, cargo shorts hate isn’t just about untapped usefulness or inauthenticity though; it goes deeper. If you can stomach a trip to Urban Dictionary, you’ll find that the entry for “cargo shorts” contains two definitions; each meant to deride cultural archetypes associated with the garment. One mocks fratboys, and the other, nerds, both have cargo shorts as some sort of unofficial uniform. Having never explicitly associated with either group, I felt that my innocent cargos had been caught in the crossfire of an ageless battle between stereotypical ideals.
Cargo shorts vitriol isn’t limited to just forum digs and frat drama though. In a public shaming several years ago, NBA legend and avid golfer Michael Jordan was banned from a high-end country club in Miami Beach for playing a round of golf in the hapless shorts. And just last year, the men’s shorts company Chubbies started a Cargo Embargo, a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign to rid the world of the baleful shorts, referring to them as “the most heinous garment ever worn by man.”
The trajectory of cargo shorts’ cultural descent is hazy, but the most reasonable account I’ve discovered begins with a single line from the 2007 teen comedy blockbuster, Superbad. In a seminal moment, Jonah Hill’s character is asked why he wouldn’t just wear his school clothes to the cool kids’ house party. He retorts, “No one’s gotten a handjob in cargo shorts since ‘Nam.”
While it’s difficult to gauge the cultural impact of a single line of dialogue, I was able to find more than a dozen instances of its re-use or reference, typically on forums and blogs targeting young men. This includes item #32 on Chubbies’ list of shorts facts. The evidence, although highly anecdotal, suggests this particular strand of cargo shorts shaming weighs on the sexual insecurities of many teenage boys with some degree of ubiquity.
If the Superbad line was an actual catalyst, that could also explain why its significance eluded me: I graduated college in 2006 and only saw the movie for the first time last year. In a sense, I “missed the memo,” and by the time I finally saw the movie, I’d aged out of its target audience. Yet the hunt for a subtle catalyst behind cargo shorts’ decline may be overwrought anyway: even a cargo shorts owner like myself must admit the shorts are, often, simply ugly. They’re khaki shorts that have been transformed into wearable knapsacks, yet still attempt the airs of business casual. The khaki color does not negate their lumpy profile or the disheveled cover flaps in desperate need of an iron (note: cargo pockets are impossible to iron). Some cargo pockets are more stealthily integrated than others, but most attempts at concealment can’t endure close scrutiny. In 2011, New York Times’ critic Jon Caramanica likened The Gap’s cargo shorts to a dog’s chew toy.
A fashion-minded critical takedown of cargo shorts could have been written 20 years ago, but we were recently introduced to normcore, the “movement” wherein high-fashion people dress like regular folks. To that end, perhaps back in Austin I should have been seen as an arbiter of avant-garde fashion instead of some clueless pariah. For the hardcore normcore (if such a being exists), it’s stylish to be unfashionable, and not explicitly stand out. Given their resilient retail popularity, cargo shorts should be the poster boys for the aesthetic. After all, what better way to stick it to the fashion elite than to wear clothes for which no one has nostalgic stylistic reverence and which prioritize utility over appearance to a superfluous degree?
Normcore aside, if ever there was an opportune time for me to return to wearing cargo shorts, it’s now. After all, I have one of those big new iPhones and I need a pocket with vacancy enough to store it. This moment should be a reversal of fortune for the embattled shorts whose baggy pockets always seemed at odds with the ever-shrinking profiles of portable phones. Of course if this strategy were to work, it will be at the expense of being labeled a “lifehack” or some other Silicon Valley buzzword, but cargo shorts and the people who wear them have been called much worse things.
The sting of being blindsided by happenstance fashion criticism back in Austin still haunts me, much the way my cargo shorts now haunt my lowermost dresser drawer, unworn and unfulfilled. Make no mistake; cargo shorts are high school holdovers, but regardless of your or my opinion, our favorite knee-length thigh bags aren’t going away anytime soon. They say fashion is cyclical, and indeed cargo shorts are the boomerang children of the men’s fashion world. Perhaps it just takes knowing when to kick them out of the nest.
Dan Solberg is a visual artist, writer, and professor of art at DePauw University. As an artist he's interested in the aesthetics of communication and the dichotomy between consumer-grade and luxury technologies. He writes about the intersection of art and videogames for KillScreen and his blog Low Cutoff. You can follow him on Twitter at @Dan_Solberg.