Cargo Pants: The Unabridged Rugged History

Cargo Pants: The Unabridged Rugged History

And a modern take on the utilitarian classic

There’s no denying that the military has had a big influence on menswear over the decades. From pea coats to combat boots, there’s a lot to appreciate. Yet no item is quite as directly tied to its military roots as the cargo pant. The earliest iteration of the iconic pocketed pant was drawn up in the headquarters of the British War Office back in the 1930s, according to historian Brian Jewell, author of the book British Battledress. English soldiers had been fighting in the same uniform since the early 1900s, but with warfare constantly evolving, they needed uniforms to stash their growing collection of battlefield gear.

The new uniform, officially released in 1938, was built with combat needs in mind. The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) pants were a leap forward from the overly formal pleated trousers soldiers used to wear. They were equipped with a map pocket just above the left knee, and a smaller field dressing pocket on the right hip.

Unfortunately, the change in uniform fell a bit short of expectations. Soldiers didn’t immediately take to the new pants. The map pocket proved to be a bit too roomy and poorly placed for practical daily use. But the more relaxed style eventually caught on and crossed the pond.


It was William P. Yarborough, an early leader of the U.S. Army's airborne forces, who decided their World War II-era uniforms would be modifications of the newly-pocketed British design. Made for paratroopers who needed secure storage when jumping out of planes, these pants were comfortable and ready for action. An oversized bellow pocket was slapped onto the side of each leg. The so-called "paratrooper pants" were built around a simple equation: More pocket-space meant more stuff could be carried. Hence, the “cargo” pant nickname.

After World War II, the paratroopers’ dual pocket cargo pant became standard issue for almost all branches of the U.S. military. Various versions, including more streamlined fatigue pants with two simple rectangular front patch pockets, were also incorporated during the Korean and the first half of the Vietnam War. Then, in 1962, when the military designed a specific tropical weather uniform for the humid forests of Vietnam (again, with William P. Yaborough at the helm), did true cargo pants return.

Eventually, all those cargos - along with so many other military wares - ended up in Army/Navy surplus stores, where civilians discovered the benefits of sartorial storage. Of course, the pants boomed in the ‘90s only to eventually go bust. And they’ve since returned, in a more streamlined silhouette.

For our take on this utilitarian classic, we thought of it like this: take a sturdy military pant and put it through a modern, sophisticated filter. The end result is something that our field tests proved to be as versatile as it is comfortable. The pants are cut from a durable, water-resistant nylon canvas with a hint of stretch that offers plenty of mobility along with protection from both stains and ultraviolet light. There are vintage-inspired details (real horn buttons as well), but the fit and finish - including the stretch material and comfortable elasticized waistband—are uniquely tailored for the needs of today’s man. Which means they come in handy whether you’re darting across town or hunkered down, working from home.

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