The History of Cargo Pants

Although cargo pants were a major fashion trend in the 1990s, the history of these pants is purely functional. First worn by soldiers as early as the 1930s, cargo pants provided storage and easy access to gear. Cargo pants still are worn for functional and fashion purposes.


The traditional cargo pant is a utilitarian pair of khaki pants, differentiated from regular pants by its cargo pockets. Cargo pockets are large square-shaped patch pockets located on the side of each pant leg, usually at the lower thigh. These are in addition to the standard front pockets. Cargo pockets usually fold shut and secure with a snap or Velcro, and are pleated to expand to accommodate storage of larger items.


Cargo pants were first worn in 1938 by British military personnel. These cargo pants were part of their Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs). The original cargo pants style featured one pocket on the side thigh and one on the front hip. Cargo pants were first worn in the United States on military uniforms in the 1940s. The side cargo pockets initially were only on paratroopers’ uniforms, providing them with easy access to ammunition and radios.

Fashion History

Cargo pants surged onto the fashion scene in the mid-to-late 1990s. Following a “trickle up” theory of how fashions spread, cargo pants first were worn as fashion by urban hip-hop performers in the 1990s. This trend flowed up to the mass market; cargo pants were ubiquitous at almost any men's or women's clothing retailer at this time. Although the cargo pockets on most items were functional, they often were unused and just worn as decorative details.


For women, cargo pants are offered in a variety of softer fabrics and colors, sometimes with ribbon trim or embellishments. U.S. fashion designer Ralph Lauren presented silk cargo pants as part of his runway show in 1998. In addition to pants, the cargo pocket has appeared on jeans, skirts, shorts and capri pants. Cargo pockets have been added to shirt sleeves as well, usually located between the shoulder and elbow.


Although cargo pants are not as trendy as they were in the 1990s, cargo pockets still are used as a functional detail on men's clothing. Men's and women's military uniforms, police uniforms, EMS uniforms and medical scrubs are available with cargo pockets on the pants.