There are few more potent symbols of the cultural backwardness of the late 1990s and early 2000s than cargo pants and, especially, cargo shorts. When it comes to now-indefensible trends that were mainstream at the time, they’re right up there with listening to nu metal and supporting the Iraq War. Over the years, they have been the subject of innumerable takedowns, including, memorably, from Jonah Hill’s character, Seth, in Superbad.
I’m 33 years old, putting me squarely in the generation of young male consumers who drove the cargo craze. There were stretches of middle and high school when I probably wore cargoes six or seven days a week. Youth-oriented mall-store brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Old Navy had taken cargo pockets, a style with utilitarian, military origins, and reinvented them as a ubiquitous element of mass fashion. Cargoes hit an improbable sweet spot of preppy, punk, and skater culture.
The funny thing is that for most wearers, the defining attribute of cargoes—the pockets—served little to no purpose. Ordinary pockets were up to the task of carrying a wallet and a flip phone. OK, cargo pockets were pretty handy for stashing a pair of sunglasses or a bag of weed. But other than that? I hardly ever put stuff in them. Plenty of blue collar workers appreciated the utility of cargoes on the job of course, but for the masses who turned them into a fashion phenomenon, they were more like tail fins on a 1950s car: purely for show. That might help explain why they came to seem so silly, so dated, so quickly. Millions of young men were walking around with big, empty pouches drooping slackly from their thighs. The only baggage they carried was cultural.