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What are Cargo Pants?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Cargo pants are identified by several large pockets, most often with button, snap or hook and loop closeable flaps. In addition to multiple front and back pockets, these pants will often have side pockets. They are most often khaki or beige colored and cotton, but can come in other colors and fabrics as well.

Military pants, like those worn by 1940s paratroopers, inspired cargo pants, but only after the style was popularized by a grass roots movement that included an even less-likely candidate for fashion — worker's pants.

Utility pants are a type of cargo pants that have a twisted loop on the side for hanging a hammer.
Utility pants are a type of cargo pants that have a twisted loop on the side for hanging a hammer.

In the 1970s, standard issue army pants, which are a form of cargo pants, were very popular with young adults who began purchasing them from Army surplus stores. A similar style also purchased from surplus stores at the time was carpenter's pants or painter's pants, commonly called worker's pants. These utility pants have many pockets like the modern, fashionable pants, but they are less tailored in the leg and lack flaps on the rear pockets. Utility pants also have a trademark twisted loop at the side, which is used by painters to slip in a paintbrush handle, or a hammer for construction workers.

Inspired by the grass-roots popularity of these pants, Levis & Strauss created "bush jeans" in the 1970s — a precursor to today's cargo pants. These were denim straight-legged jeans with large thigh-length side-entry pockets that had smaller square front-facing pockets with snap-down flaps. The back pockets were also deep with snap-down flaps. The main difference between these pants and today's versions is that bush jeans were very slimming, while most cargo pants today have a baggy cut.

Cargo pants are so named because of their ability to carry so much "cargo" in the pockets. The style became so popular that cargo shorts soon followed. The popularity of the style has endured in one form or another since the 1970s. Both comfortable and practical, they have become as much a staple of casual dress as traditional jeans, and are likely to be around for many years to come.

Discussion Comments


The straight leg bush jeans were actually designed and sold by Levi's in the 60s and can be seen in the 60s tv show, Mod Squad, with Linc Hayes wearing them. As the story goes, when Levi's had their tax accountants on the job in the 70s, they located an entire warehouse full of left over and unsold straight leg bush jeans from the 60s. Apparently they'd forgotten/'lost' any knowledge of said jeans. So, they took the lot of them and washed them, and these were the very first 'pre-washed' jeans ever on the market in the US. Some were bleached and others were left quite dark, but they had to be washed to be able to be sold. They'd been sitting in that warehouse for about eight years.

Of course, Levi's charged a higher price than for the usual, rigid, unwashed, regular jeans and due to the novelty of the cut as well as the 'pre-wash', they sold like crazy and henceforth, Levi's redesigned them with wide bell-bottoms for the newer 70s version. Having worked in a shop that sold these jeans, I was lucky enough to be able to purchase two pairs of the straight leg 60s version, and still own them, as well as two pairs of the bells, though I preferred the straight ones. Still own them all!

Saw a pair of the bells on eBay recently up for $295. If only the execs at Levi's had a clue on what they're missing out on. Wishing they'd bring these babies back and not as the silly mini-skirts that they currently have in the stores.


When I was little I used to love carpenter's pants and cargo pants. It's easy, as a young woman, to find lots of varieties of "fashion"cargo pants now. However, I find it unfortunate that no matter how popular women's cargo pants have become, no one wants to make a simple pair of straight leg carpenter jeans that will look good on a grown woman with curves. Is it really that difficult?

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    • Utility pants are a type of cargo pants that have a twisted loop on the side for hanging a hammer.
      By: donatas1205
      Utility pants are a type of cargo pants that have a twisted loop on the side for hanging a hammer.