When Zac Galifianakis hosted Saturday Night Live back in 2011, he did an impression during his monologue called “Guy from Queens who’s obsessed with cargo shorts.” The whole bit was one line (not counting the setup), in which Galifianakis said, in a thick Queens accent, “What are those, cargo shorts?” Only Galifianakis could properly sell a joke like that, but it hinted at where cargo shorts were headed in the eyes of our cultural zeitgeist.
Today, cargo shorts are so widely loathed that they serve as their own punchline — yet they can still be found everywhere, from clothing store racks to big-box retailers to online shopping sites. They accounted for more than $700 million in sales back in ye’ olde days of 2016, and that’s after their first dip in sales in more than a decade. Not bad for some shorts that cost between $20-$30 a pair.
Still, ubiquitous as they are (and have been), you’ll be hard-pressed to find another article of clothing for which the simple utterance of its name can create divisive rancor, ruining dinner parties and turning friendships sour. In the “garments that can start arguments” category, “the dress” has nothing on a pair of “cargos.” To try to fathom how we arrived at this contentious place, here’s a look at some key moments in the history of the reviled garment.
Before they became a running gag, cargo pants were first worn by members of the British infantry in 1938 and were introduced to American soldiers in the early 1940s, by the time the US entered WW2. The large pockets were modified slightly for the US Paratrooper division, used for storing maps, rations, and extra ammunition. They were kept in use by the military, later made with larger pockets as the troops were required to wear more and more gear.
Then came the inevitable trickle-down effect. Veterans brought these cargo pants home with them, and they circulated into street fashion by subcultures fond of shopping at military surplus stores.
This was the decade that cargo shorts really came into their own. Keeping the utility of the oversized pocket, but doing away with any fabric below the knee, they were marketed to aspiring outdoorsy types and at-home handymen. While they could be seen on golf courses and on hiking trails, they were years away from becoming a widely derided fashion staple.
Still, if you look back on the 80s, the rise of khaki shorts, in general, hinted at what was to come.