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Elevating cargo pants from the trenches to the catwalk

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published May 29, 2024 5:00 am

Cargo pants have not been in our wardrobe for some time since they were too utilitarian and associated with the tourist hordes, but lately, with new iterations in lighter and more luxurious fabrics, as well as new proportions, we have finally given in to getting a few pairs. 

They have also been dominating the catwalks for the last few seasons, influenced by streetwear styles and celebrities like Anne Curtis, Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift, who have been seen romping around town wearing them both for day and for cocktail hour.

Anne Curtis’s cargo with cropped top

Cargo pants have actually managed to bridge the gap between luxury and streetwear, transcending epochs, national borders, generations and various subcultures to become a universal staple that you see everywhere when traveling the world. From the top fashion houses to fast fashion and the cheapest online versions, they cut across all market categories and demographics. Their ubiquity may perhaps be attributed to the pandemic effect of gravitating to loungewear and loose clothing, which includes oversized pants, utilitarian wear and quiet luxury. The Y2K revival in fashion is another reason for its resurgence.

The status of cargos has changed many times over the past century since its beginnings in the 1930s when there was a need to update the British Army’s Service Dress, which had become obsolete with the evolving nature of the war being fought with tanks and more sophisticated equipment.

British Battle Dress, 1930s

The British War Office, after extensive research, released the 1938 Battle Dress, a uniform more suitable for the needs of modern combat by departing from the previous one’s formality and focusing on functionality, which was evident in the trousers, in particular featuring a pocket for maps just above the left knee and a smaller pocket for medications on the side. This foundation for the modern-day cargo was quite revolutionary then, transforming simple leg-covering trousers into a vital component of a soldier’s arsenal. 

Urban Revivo

In the US, the cargo evolved from paratrooper uniforms that were reinvented as the M42 in 1942 by replacing one-piece jumpsuits with two-piece ones that had ample pockets to distribute the 100 pounds of equipment strapped to their backs.

Deconstructed cargo pants by Carl Jan Cruz

Cargos entered mainstream civilian fashion in the second half of the century when the military surplus and used clothing industry took shape and military styles were cheap alternatives for economically disadvantaged youth, starting an alternate fashion trend of co-opting uniforms as well as practical wear for climbers, hikers, campers, hunters and fishermen from the 1950s to the 1970s. They also became uniforms of rebellion, adopted by hippies and the antiwar movement in the 1960s.

Jennifer Lopez wearing cargo pants in wool

In the 1980s, cargo pants and shorts enjoyed a surge in civilian fashion through iterations like the Bugle Boy cargo pants in 1986, followed by hip-hop versions in the ’90s. The intersection of hip-hop cargo pants and catwalk fashion may have started in Paris Fashion Week SS 1995 on the runway of Claude Montana and later in the DKNY collection of Donna Karan in 1997. In 1998, Ferragamo and Walter van Beirendonck featured them and Ralph Lauren announced that the cargo was the single biggest-selling item.

Phoebe Philo

By 2000, Dior’s versions were the bestselling among celebrities and entered mainstream fashion. A high point was in SS 2002 when Nicolas Ghesquiere made it the foundation for many of his looks for Balenciaga, appropriating them from streetwear and the sports world to create a new archetype of luxury that made them hot till the end of 2003. Although the market was saturated by then, cargos never really disappeared from fashion completely, so designers could not avoid making luxe versions of them every now and then.

Balenciaga SS 2024

Cargo pants also remained in the streetwear aesthetic canon, becoming more refined over time and staying in the conversation among the Gen-Z, who have a predilection for Y2K and recycled fashion.

At the spring 2024 collections of Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten, The Attico, and in Phoebe Philo’s debut drop, cargos were having a new, sophisticated, dressed-up vibe that veered away from the pairings with baby tees and chunky sneakers.

Christopher John Rogers pre-fall 2024

Christopher John Rogers, who started the cargo makeover in his collections as early as spring 2020, observed that “comfort and utility have become increasingly important to customers today, and we’re also seeing a slight flattening of trends, where now almost anything goes. It’s also about getting the most out of your clothes.”

The concept of what’s “dressed up” now has also loosened up. “Post-COVID, the cargo pant has become an elevated luxury wardrobe staple,” according to Yumi Shin, chief merchandising officer at Bergdorf Goodman, who also loves how “the perceived casualness is contrasted in luxurious fabrics, juxtaposed with a tailored jacket and styled with the right accessories such as a chic sandal.”

Travis Kelce in velvet Collina Strada cargos

It’s a question of finding creative ways of how wardrobe staples can be worn to give them new life, just like Marc Forne’s styling of Troye Sivan and Manu Rios, who mix camo cargos with pinstripe tailoring or Amanda Murray’s pairing of vintage army surplus cargos with a trailing Dries Van Noten blouse or an evening top by Junya Watanabe. “Think of them as a more chic alternative to cotton pants,” advises Hillary Taymour of online store Collina Strada, whose crushed velvet cargos worn by Travis Kelce went viral, as the fans of his girlfriend Taylor Swift were titillated by the fact that the fabric matched the curtains in a Swift video launching the Midnights album on TikTok.

The look has even extended beyond pants, with the cargo pocket detail adopted in shorts and skirts like at Miu Miu and even in bags, as seen at Prada. The pockets, however, are seen less as places to store stuff and more “as architectural elements or an accessory to your outfit,” says Taymour in an article by New York Times columnist Vanessa Friedman, who concludes that “the only cargo they should be carrying, after all, is attitude.”