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|2 Nov 2020|6 mins

How Cargo Pants Travelled from the Battlefield to the Runway 

Standard issue for men’s fashion.

Originally designed for the British military, cargo pants have proven to be ultra adaptable over the course of their 80-year history. Embraced by punk rockers, skaters, and hip hop royalty, cargo pants have returned to the sartorial zeitgeist in 2020, with key figures such as Kanye West, Errolson Hugh, and Virgil Abloh bringing the style back to the fashion frontline. 

But just how did this combat garb make its way from the battlefield to the runway? 

We look back at the history of one of fashion’s most polarising trends. 

Squad Goals
First worn by the British Armed Forces in 1938, cargo pants originally featured just one, single patch pocket on BDUs (British Dress Uniforms). Becoming more of a sartorial nuisance than practicality, the oversized pocket and somewhat cumbersome design wasn’t refined until cargo pants crossed the Atlantic in the 1940s.

Redesigned by the United States military in the 1940s, the so-called ‘paratrooper pants’ were manufactured to be battle-ready the second a soldier’s boots hit the ground (paratroopers are trained to be dropped by an aircraft directly onto the battlefield). Slimmed-down and developed with dual-pocket cargo, the pants provided ample storage for things like ammo, maps, rations, and other military essentials. The functionality became so useful that it didn’t take long for the paratrooper pants to become standard issue for the whole US military. 

Fast forward to the 1990s, and cargo pants started to become popular far, far away from military battlefields. Curiously dissected by fashion ateliers and lovingly adopted by skaters for the functionality, the perpetually-malleable cargo pants found a second, third and fourth life in diverse sartorial manifestations. 

They’ve also proven hugely popular among America’s hip hop scene. Often manufactured with classic woodland camo, cargo pants helped emblazon the political lyricism of figures like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., as America became an urban war zone of sorts during the 1990s. In the following decade, rappers like Eminem, Soulja Boy, and Jay-Z extended the cultural legacy of cargo in hip hop, the style becoming even more big and bellowing as the years progressed. 

Images with thanks to Getty Images

Now, it seems as if every brand on planet earth is heralding the once-derided cargo pants.

From Errolson Hugh’s future-functionalist ACRONYM to the high-end runways of Louis Vuitton for SS20, designers are more eager than ever to radically reimagine the proportions of cargo pants. Ballooning to a size somewhat relative to the paratroopers’ parachutes in the 1940s, we’re now seeing gargantuan pockets with the capacity to carry your whole life. From diverse materials like ripstop and corduroy to ultra-loud colour palettes, cargo pants are again finding new modes of expression in 2020. 

Still, despite the ongoing experimentation, the central sartorial ancestry remains: uber-functionality. And with all those pockets, you’ve really got no excuses when it comes to navigating fashion’s frontline.

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