I believe I bought my first pair of proper cargo shorts shortly after graduating college. I remember my senior-year housemate Ben sporting an olive drab pair of cargo pants the previous year and I repeatedly remarked at both their functionality (enabling him to smuggle beers into hostile and/or verboten environments with ease) and their utilitarian, military chic. Still greatly enamored of bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and a host of other post-punk outfits who routinely dressed in arguably ridiculous camo gear, I picked up a pair of camo cargo shorts for myself at a since-vanished Army-Navy outlet somewhere on Bleecker Street in 1989, projecting in my youthful naivete that, by wearing them, I’d emulate the war-weary cool of Captain Willard or Lance the Surfer in “Apocalypse Now.”
I wore that pair for multiple summers until they literally fell apart (although the shredded and distressed aesthetic only made them cooler, to my mind), usually paired with equally battered sneakers and some dumb black rock-shirt..surprise!
By this point, however, cargo shorts had kinda caught on. This isn’t to say that I’d been in on the ground floor or anything, but you were suddenly seeing outlets like the Gap and Banana Republic selling them … even camo ones (which I found just as disappointing as them selling Rush, AC/DC and Ramones shirts a few years later). Where before, one had to rummage through the bins at Canal Street Jean Co. or The Trader (both long gone, of course) for cool camo gear, now you could easily find them at your nearest mall, and pair them with a fetching pink polo shirt, I guess.
So, suddenly, everyone from weirdos like me through bike messengers and backwards-baseball-capped bros were sporting cargo shorts, the latter contingent invariably augmenting them with those shitty Adidas flip-flops and filling their pockets with tallboys of Bud Light. Shudder.
Personally speaking, I ended up cherishing my various pairs of cargo shorts primarily for their comfort more than anything else. That said, the multiple, deep pockets are genuinely useful. Actually, they’re perfectly sized to accommodate newly acquired compact discs …now if I could only find a store that still sells those.
In any case, years and years after cargo shorts caught on and became the lazy go-to garment of choice for slobby American males (although I have worn mine with a dapper blazer, on occasion), we now seem to be thick into the inevitable backlash. I keep seeing angry ruminations across social media from various parties (usually female) decrying this sartorial staple. People write fuckin’ think-pieces about them for otherwise respectable outlets like the Daily Beast and the Wall Street Journal.
Just last week, while cluelessly browsing in a shop in a vain attempt at finding my wife a birthday present, a pair of women started openly scrutinizing my cargo shorts (worn `neath a well-loved Beastie Boys t-shirt and a suitably ratty pair of sneakers – I was not dressed to impress at the time), back-pedaling when they learned I was listening by emphatically asserting that they did a visual disservice to my otherwise comely stems. It’s not that I wasn’t buyin’ it, but I just couldn’t discern why they cared so much.
A whip-smart friend of mine, who happens to be female, recently mentioned that the backlash against cargo shorts — camo or otherwise — is so vehement because it riles women that men are blithely afforded the luxury of not having to care about their appearance, while — at the same time — the male gaze constantly scrutinizes every sartorial decision women make like the unblinking Eye of Sauron. I get that. It's entirely unfair and shitty.
But why is that grievance particularly aimed at cargo shorts? I can think of hundreds of more egregious sartorial/tonsorial crimes, from popped collars and man buns to fucking basketball shorts (worn off the court) and sagging, hip-hop pants. Surely these are more of an eyesore than cargo shorts, no?
Regardless, I’m going on my first vacation from work after nine months at my new job. I’m not going anywhere exotic, just my mom’s place out in Long Island, to hang out with my wife and kids on the beach. As such, I’ll doubtlessly be sporting a pair of weathered cargo shorts every damn day.
If that offends you, sorry … avert your eyes.