It-girls love them, the King wears 'em, your nan probably owns a pair. From their birth in the British military, how did the humble cargo pant become a mainstay in modern day fashion? Below, we chart the most notable cargo pants through history.
Rihanna wearing camo cargo pants, 2023.
Cargos hark back to 1938, when the British military introduced the pant as part of the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) for WWII. Coming in a camouflage olive green with a large pocket at the thigh for holding ammunition, the utility pants were purely functional. It wasn’t long before the camouflage pant was picked up by US paratroopers, who increased the pockets along each leg, rapidly making the pant a mainstay in the uniforms of the US military. Post-WWII, with the need for mass military uniforms on-hold for the moment, military surplus stores began cropping up to sell off excess stock - and so began the availability of the cargo pant to the mainstream.
Skater Harold Hunter wearing camo cargo pants, late 1980s.
By the late 1980s, cargo pants had found popularity as outdoor garb due to their durability, but it was the youth-centric subcultures of NY and Cali that pulled the style onto the scene. Punks, rappers and skaters sniffed out the style, the latter favoring the pants for their baggy fit and unrestricted movement for endless kicks and flips. Pro skaters - among which was Kids’ Harold Hunter - tore up the streets of New York in their cargos, slung low and baggy in teen rebellion, FU-style.
With hip hop breaking out from adjacent underground scenes, the military cargo became uniform for artists like TuPac and Diddy throughout the ‘90s. Here, the camo-print cargo found its feet, but it was the girl groups of the genre pushing cargos into new styling realms. TLC gave us cargo maxi skirts, All Saints did them in satin and Destiny’s Child’s Survivor era had the trio kitted out in cargo bralets, knicker shorts and minis. What was considered a boyish silhouette, now paired with teeny-tiny bras and shrunken baby tees, gave a new context to the cargo pant; one of female empowerment which pushed the piece into unisex fashion.
TLC wearing cargo pants and skirt, 1999.
It’s hard to pinpoint the popularisation of military pants without considering the brands that first copped the style. In 1994, London-based designer Maharishi burst onto the scene with their ‘Snopant’ - a cargo pant akin to the original military-grade design, paired with intricate Eastern embroidery. Fast forward 5 years and the likes of Brad and Jen were being papped in snopants, paired with a vest and flip flops in what would become the ultimate casj fit for the decade ahead.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt wearing Maharishi Snopants, 1999.
With cargo pants steadily creeping into the mainstream, the 2000s - an era where any level of taste had left the group chat - provided the perfect backdrop for exploration. Come A/W02, Dolce & Gabbana gave the cargo pant a fresh silhouette - a hip-hugging, straight leg cut complete with a chunky belt. Highstreet giants like Abercrombie and Fitch and Gap quickly caught on, marketing low rise, bootcut and cropped cargos to the masses. The look du jour for teens became hip-hugging cargos, paired with cami tops and a whole lotta midriff; a look which lives on in the cult romcoms of the era (think Mean Girls’ Cady Heron in that cargo pants and flip flop combo).
In the celeb world, peak glamour became defined by a palpably awful, yet nevertheless iconic piece - the capri-cargo. Sported by Xtina, Pink and J-Lo alike, the pant shed the functional pockets and utilitarian cues of its predecessor, coming figure-fitted and cropped at the knee. Throw in a suitably bedazzled bralet and kitten heel and you had the popstar uniform of the moment; a rendition of the cargo that we respectfully left in this era.
Sarah Jessica Parker wearing cargo-capri pants in Sex and the City, 2000s.
Since the 2000s, cargo pants have come and gone, but their utilitarian design cues remain permanent features in mainstream fashion. We’ve seen tapered trousers for the office where utility pockets are more suited to iPhones than ammunition, loose renditions for the home, cargo trackies for the airport, camo minis for the club.
So where does that leave us today? Last summer, the cargo trend burst back onto the scene, working its way into countless runways whilst gaining it’s own traction on social media. And whilst many iterations appeared in the S/S22 shows - whether butterfly-printed pants at Chanel, a cargo suit crafted in PP pink at Valentino, or denim bomber and mini skirt co-ords at Diesel - the trend is being received by a different generation. Against an ubiquitous landscape of clothing resale where street style reigns supreme, cargo pieces are being adopted by all. Any cargo iteration from years gone by - whether amy surplus or runway one-offs - can be up for grabs with the right search.
Bella Hadid wearing Coperni cargo skirt, 2022.
Last year, it was all about the cargo skirt a la Bella Hadid for Coperni, with the influencer generation decked out in ankle-grazing, nylon maxis. Hadid soon clocked onto the parachute pant - a cousin to the cargo trouser sans pockets - causing another sell-out style. This summer’s cool-girl uniform was ruled by the camo cut off, a 2000s Beyoncé meets Adam Sandler short which appeared between bikini tops and cowboy boots. And now, thanks to the legacy of Rihanna’s post-pregnancy looks, it’s all about the XXL cargo: a pant giving more fabric, more pockets, more drama.
Our designers are as tapped into the military trend as we are. Cargos have long formed part of Spencer Badu’s brand uniform and this season, the designer explored his own take on the XXL trend: some pairs come ultra-low waisted in a jean-cargo mashup; others are spliced at the knee and overlaid. Glenn Martens continued his cargo exploration at Diesel, delivering nylon trews with pockets en masse. Botter dissected the cargo pant altogether, placing utility pockets atop formal tailoring, and at Dion Lee, the cargos came boxy and belted for maximal impact. Hedge your bets for what’s next to come.
Words by Ella Aldersey-Williams