Are we really surprised that cargo pants are A Thing again? You could argue that they never properly went away. Rumours of their 2003 demise were greatly exaggerated, and for the past decade a pair of generously-pocketed Carhartts or Dickies have been a regular sighting in coffee shops and brewery pubs up and down the nation.
But certainly, right now, we’re in the middle of a cargo pant renaissance. Why? Well, the 90s fashion revival is tumbling into Y2K fever, and the cargo pant is peak turn-of-the-millennium. But more than that, there’s an appetite for sturdy, utilitarian clothing that feels stronger than ever right now, and the result is a new interpretation of cargo pants that are functional but smart. Less skater boy, more grown-up with good taste. Want in? Then read on, it couldn’t be easier.
Wearing Cargo Pants: Dos & Don’ts
Don’t Go Overboard On The Pockets
Cargo pants are a military invention. They first emerged around the time of WWII, when large pockets were added to troops’ trousers to hold things like maps, bandages and ammunition. The very first cargo pants, created for the British Army, had just a single patch pocket (the large, sewn-on pockets typically found on cargo pants or jackets). The Americans added a second, with dual or quad pockets remaining the standard ever since.
All of this is to say that if soldiers – actual soldiers fighting wars – can make do with just a few cargo pockets, then less should be more for us civvies, too. The simplest styles have two pockets that are positioned closer to the hip than the knee, and that sit neatly rather than sagging down. Of course there are brands taking a more maximalist approach to pocket count and size and doing it well, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
Do Choose The Right Fit And Fabric
The reason cargo pants got a bad rep last time around? Bad fits. The late 90s-early 00s era wasn’t known for restraint, which is why cargo pants gradually got big, baggy and bulky to the point where they looked like a parody. The best cargo pants of today are clean and streamlined, usually in a slim or straight cut. Wide-legged styles can work, but there’s a very fine line to be walked between gently oversized and cartoonish.
In terms of fabric, it’s quite hard to go wrong here. Sturdy cotton twill is the classic, but smarter options in chunky corduroy and fuzzy wools are also bang on the money.
Don’t Complicate Things
Good style is all about balance. If you’re going all-in on cargo pants, even the polite, smartly-tailored ones, then keep things simple up top. Military field jackets and utility vests can work with cargo pants, but it’s difficult to pull off without looking like you’ve just raided an army surplus store (the trick is to mix colours and fabrics, and keep the fit modern).
For most men, the best way to wear cargo pants is with classic pieces – chunky fisherman knits, overshirts, hiking boots and denim jackets. In the summer, you can’t go wrong with an oversized T-shirt and some clean white sneakers.
Do Keep It Casual
As we’ve mentioned, the best cargo pants are often smart and well-tailored. Sometimes they are even made from tailoring fabrics. But even so, one thing they’re absolutely not is formal. A pair of cargo pants with a cashmere sweater, an Oxford shirt and boots is slick, but that’s about as smart as it gets. Lean in to the utility of it all and keep things laid-back.
Men’s Cargo Pants Outfits: What To Wear
Entry Level Cargo Pants
The simplest way of thinking about cargo pants is as a slightly more exciting chino, which is to say that you can wear them with pretty much any casual jacket, T-shirt and sneaker combo. If you’re dipping your toes in the waters, stick to colour combinations you know well, like sandy-beige and blue denim.
Elegant Cargo Pants
Classic menswear fabrics like flannel, pinstripes and checks all work for cargo pants. Stick to muted tones and look for pairs with classic tailoring details like a pintucked or pleated front, or a properly turned-up hem. You can dress them down with a good, chunky crew neck or turtleneck, and simple Derby shoes or leather sneakers.
Rugged Cargo Pants
Fleece sits neatly in the same category as cargo pants – considered somewhat uncool for years, but secretly we were all thrilled to see it make a comeback. Also like cargo pants, it’s important with fleece to keep things uncomplicated if you’re after a mature look. Instead of the typical bright colours and graphic designs, think in neutral tones like cream, white and grey.
Loafers smarten this up, with hiking boots a more authentic alternative.
Smart Cargo Pants
You can, to a certain extent, dress up a pair of cargo pants for parties, dates or work. The simplest way is to choose a pair with a tailored fit and well-proportioned pockets that don’t shout for attention. Keep your shirt untucked unless you’re also wearing a jumper, and wear with a slightly cropped jacket for a more interesting silhouette.
Minimalist Cargo Pants
Minimalist needn’t ever mean boring, and stripping everything back to monotone is a classic move for a reason. Here, it’s all about focussing on the precise silhouette and details, like the way the trouser hem gently kisses the top of the boot, and the sharpness of the cargo pant pockets. If you aren’t sold on all black, this would work just as well with navy and a crisp white tee.
Everyday Cargo Pants
It’s not a crime to want to dress simply and comfortably, especially in the warmer months. Cargo pants in soft, rugged cotton are ideal here –they have a little more edge than a bog-standard chino, but aren’t remotely fussy. Throw on some beaten-up skate shoes and a well-fitting T-shirt and you’re set.
Luxe Cargo Pants
Often, the reason an outfit looks expensive has nothing to do with the price tag and everything to do with texture. Mixing tactile finishes like shearling, wool and leather gives a rich, luxurious feel to this cargo pant outfit – keep to muted tones like navy and tan, and make sure the fit is spot-on, too.
Workwear Cargo Pants
Cargo pants made from lighter, more fluid fabrics are ideal for this sort of easy, workwear-inspired styling: think boxy chore jackets, gilets and chambray shirts.
Cargo Pants For The Office
If yours is the suit-and-tie kind of office, then we’re afraid cargo pants are probably out of the question for your work wardrobe. But if the vibe is a little more business casual, a smart, well-fitting pair in grey, navy or black can easily work their way into your rotation. Wear them with boots rather than shoes and save the tie for another day.
Modern Military Cargo Pants
Leaning into the military heritage of cargo pants is an astute move that’s easy to pull off. Khaki trousers and leather boots give an instant nod to military uniform, but the slim fit of the cargo pants and the sleek shape of the boots take it out of the barracks and firmly into the now. A knitted T-shirt would work just as well as a cable knit in warmer months.
Corduroy Cargo Pants
When it comes to corduroy cargo pants, fit is key. Cords already looks bulky before you start adding cargo pockets, so slimmer styles are often more flattering. Lean into the rugged, adventurer vibe with heavy boots, plaid shirts and quilted jackets, or play off the texture with chunky knitwear.
High-Low Cargo Pants
The thing about rules is that they’re made to be broken. A double-breasted jacket with cargo pants and a simple T-shirt shouldn’t work, but it does with the right know-how. The cut of the jacket is crucial here: louche, oversized and completely modern, it feels more like a tracksuit jacket when paired with relaxed cargo pants in a slouchy yet premium fabric like wool. Clashing textures and patterns help ground this look more in streetwear than anything else, aided by accessories like a beanie hat or a nylon crossbody bag.
70s-Inspired Cargo Pants
One of the quickest ways of taking cargo pants out of the 90s is to jump straight into another decade, picking up a pair in a rich, earthy tone straight out of the 70s. Brown can be a little intimidating to wear, but combining it with mustard and tan creates a look that’s timeless.
Preppy Cargo Pants
Sometimes you don’t mess with a classic, which is why the preppy look has survived for 70 years and counting. But sometimes the classics can be given a gentle nudge towards the future without doing anything too radical. Cargo pants are a quick way of modernising preppy staples like a cable-knit sweater or a rugby shirt. Keep to the traditional colour palette of khaki and stone, and go for retro sneakers rather than boat shoes.