A few years ago I wrote an impassioned and admittedly inebriated essay in defense of the most polarizing piece of clothing a man can wear: cargo shorts. At the time I felt I was standing up not only for myself, as a decidedly aesthetically unorthodox addition to the staff of a renowned fashion magazine, but also for average dudes everywhere. Why the hell shouldn’t we have the right to wear what we want, especially when it’s comfortable and, damn it, practical? The story went wide, and to this day I receive a few emails a month from people staunchly staking a side in what, if you’ve tied enough of a belligerent buzz on, amounts to a modern day class war.
Of course, I’m not the only person who’s ever written about this topic. Every year someone dredges it up like a pair of cut-off camo surplus shorts from under the bench seat of their rusted-out Tacoma, airing out their grievances and sparking a brief, if impassioned, public debate. It’s an argument that’s probably been happening since some sweaty Brit took a bayonet to his woolen military cargo pants when they were first issued back in 1938, cleaving them off at the knees and immediately dividing his foreign legion battalion into fashionista factions. In the modern age, we’re not even fighting about the actual garment anymore—this has become as much about personality types as anything. Are you the cargo short type? Well, let’s see … Do you radiate chill vibes, enjoy the outdoors, and have at least one fond memory involving a music festival parking lot? Perhaps a penchant for tinkering, that over time has evolved into a general handiness? You, my friend, are squarely in cargo country.
Conversely, does seeing people do or wear things that you don’t agree with set your teeth to grinding? Do you consider spontaneity as foul as you do box wine, the lack of support in boxer shorts, and eating pizza without a knife and fork? Do you recoil at approaching dogs because they’re generally unclean and you hate getting hair on your precious pressed slacks? Then shorts with extra storage probably aren’t your bag. Also, you should chill out before you have an aneurysm.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of the former. But here’s the thing: as I get older, I do have to give some quarter to the other side: sometimes, cargo shorts aren’t okay.
I know, I know. It was hard for me to swallow at first, too. But then, I live on Cape Cod. I’m writing this from a sun drenched deck wearing, yes, cargo shorts, flip flops, and a Flaming Lips t-shirt that says “Don’t Let Those Motherfuckers Kill Our Vibe.” There’s a strong probability I’ll be having a margarita or three with lunch. At 11:30 a.m. Viewed from that perspective, of course, cargo shorts are always okay. Anything else would be overdressed, or at least trying too hard too early in the day to impress the cougars that prowl our local watering holes and clam shacks in these sultry summer months.
But not everyone’s life is the beginning of a Jimmy Buffet song.
It’s something I discovered the hard way when I wore my “nice” shorts to the office in New York, only to garner open stares of disbelief as I strode through a sea of well-tailored suits and designer denim, my flip flops flap-slapping my path to my desk. No, they weren’t marveling at the magnificent mahogany tan of my exposed legs. It was almost as awkward as when, after work, I tried to drown my embarrassment in a finely mixed cocktail with some friends, only to be barred entrance to a swanky bar due to my uncouth lower half.
Self-righteous at first, I eventually came to see their point. Cargo shorts are a leisure item. If you’re packing the pockets with energy bars for a through hike, tools and parts for your vintage Jeep, or heady nugs and a brewski for the Phish show, you’re good to go. Just bear in mind that in a more formal setting they turn you into a garish, hairy distraction from other pursuits. There are times to make a statement, and times to not. When you’re power washing your mega yacht, even if that just means rinsing barf off an inflatable donut raft, wear what you want, and to hell with anyone who tells you otherwise. But if “heading to the office” means actually going to an office, or if you’re gonna grab dinner at a place where everyone else is wearing a jacket, show some restraint. Otherwise, hate to say it, you’re the doofus, not the uptight guy. Plus, you’re making the rest of us look bad, and that’s apparently not something we need any help with.
Confused about just what cargo shorts you should be wearing? Aspire to better than just a pair of cut-off army pants with fraying hems and a cabernet stain? Here are a few of our favorites this summer.
Light weight with a slightly slim fit, thanks to the stretch nylon fabric, these shorts can hold a tailored looking cut but move with you, whether you’re headed to grab another round of tequila shots or bag another peak before nightfall. The dark ginger colorway has a classic mountaineering feel, while being refined enough to take to the artisanal pickle bar down the street.
Kelly Slater’s Outerknown brand is bridging the gap between surf wear and fashion, and doing it with an eye to environmental consciousness. That means you can cop these eight-ounce organic cotton shorts and, like Hannah Montana before you, straddle the best of both worlds. The pockets on these don’t snap shut like most of their kind, so you can use them to quick-draw a beverage or casually drop a shoplifted bar of Sex Wax into, and they come with a drawstring waist in case you go a little too loco on that burrito. The olive drab colorway channels traditional Army surplus, but without the everyman generic cut.
Water repellent, quick drying, and sun protecting, Patagonia’s ultralight take on the classic cargo blends it with their surf trunk technology, once again putting you at the intersection of great and “hell yeah.” Naturally, since it’s Patagonia, they’re made from recycled materials and bluesign approved fabric, so when people give you the stink eye for your fashion choices you can take the high road and look down upon them and their planet-killing clothes. Plus, the forge grey color is both understated and dark enough to almost hide that extra storage you’re sporting.
These shorts are perfect to grab for that weekend on the Vineyard. Hilfiger has done away with some of the excess baggage and slimmed down his classic cargo design, meaning that you’re going to look aces when you rub elbows with Muffy and Buffy at the club. To really do it right, you’ve got go with the Barberry Red color, paired with a tucked in white golf shirt, popped collar, and mirrored aviators. Then laugh and leave the haters coughing in a gritty cloud of sand as you tear off in your vintage Defender with their girlfriends. Added bonus: every pair comes with a matching belt.
You ready for this? Ready to rock the pinnacle of cargo short design, an envelope-pushing look so next-level there are only a few among us who possess the necessary IDGAF swagger to truly pull them off? Enter J Crew’s Madras cargos. Equal parts the quilt you lost your virginity on at prep school and eye-crushing camouflage option for a Nantucket cocktail party, these shorts feature a colorful concoction of “wtf” and “f you” so potent that even the bro-iest bros in the room will be fawning all over you. Caution: not for the faint of heart—if you can’t rise to the occasion of these shorts, you’re going to be wiping kicked sand out of your face all summer long. So choose wisely.