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Cargo Pants, Forever In Style: How to Wear Them + Outfit Ideas

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Blonde haired girl wearing black cargo pants and grey crop top

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Last Updated on June 5, 2021

After you read this article, you won’t be able to resist the temptation to get your own pair of cargo pants. After all, who wouldn’t want to get a pair of magic pants that can be combined with anything in their closet?

Sounds too good to be true? It is not! 

Let me tell you that since the 90s cargo pants are one of my favorite go-to items and a staple in my closet. Read on for tips on how to create outfits based on color, clothing item, and occasions!

What defines a Cargo Pant?

The first cargo pants were designed for the British Armed Forces and were introduced as combat pants for military workwear around 1938.

They were easily identified by their large cargo pockets that had accordion folds to maximize capacity and closed with a flap secured by a snap, button, or similar.

Their original design was loosely cut and made in sturdy canvas fabric with rugged stitching that could withstand rough conditions. 

Cargo Pants During the 90s and early 00s

cargo pants in 90s catalogue

Cargo pants became a part of mainstream fashion thanks to the popularization of military pants by hip-hop artists, and by the 90s it felt like were already available almost everywhere.

They were generally made out of synthetic fabrics or a mixture of cotton and polyester, so they dried quickly and handled outdoor activities very well. They often featured contrasting stitching, oversized belt loops that could accommodate wide belts, and felled seams that made them extra strong and durable.

Tan and grey were the most common colors, followed by army green and camouflage prints. And above all, they were very cool! 

That’s probably why celebrities started wearing them in the first place. They added edge, personality, and flair, especially when worn by dainty women. Fashionable variables in denim and other fabrics started to emerge when celebrities jumped on the cargo pants wagon and varied media like teen magazines, MTV, tv-series, and movies began featuring them.

One of the preferred looks of celebrities contrasted feminine elements with the rough-looking cargo pants. This style was often worn by singers and actresses alike, pairing high-heeled sandals and either thin or thick-strap tank tops with cargo pants. In the case of Britney, her outfit is made even cuter by her matching pink top and furry jacket.

By the end of the 90s, cargo pants were at the peak of their fame and would continue to be super popular throughout the 00s. However, that wouldn’t be the end of it. The style has been revisited many times by celebrities and designers alike, and it usually makes a comeback every couple of years.

This means that if you invest in a great pair of cargo pants today, your shopping will come in handy again in the near future. So, take note, make room in your closet, and hold on tight to your favorite cargo trousers!

Flash Forward to 2021 – Are Cargo Pants Still in Style?

Cargo pants certainly fell out of style for a while. They had a couple of notable comebacks but nothing like the popularity they are experiencing today. Their current moment of glory is due, in part, to the notoriety they gained as an off-duty model staple, being favored by the likes of Kendall Jenner, Lilly Rose Depp, and Gigi Hadid.  

Their rough charm continues to make them a favorite of other A-listers like Gwen Stefani and Kourtney Kardashian, who probably were also fans during the 90s. The same can be said of Kim and Kanye, who recently had a novel pair of cargo pants in one of his Yeezy collections that featured rotated cargo pockets. 

Nowadays, cargo pants are available as either ready-to-wear or high fashion, in a myriad of fabrics, colors, and prints. They have achieved cult status, been styled into every possible occasion, and adapted to fit the most diverse of styles. And that is, after all, the magic of cargo pants… They always look great no matter the occasion, be they denim, satin, or nylon!

Cargo Pants vs Jeans – Which one will you choose?

Cargo pants and jeans have a lot in common. They are both generally styled in relaxed and comfort-oriented outfits, they are very easy to match and they have a ton of different styles within their ranks to choose from. It is this last characteristic that makes them difficult to compare if we are referring to them as a whole. 

However, in my personal opinion, if we compare a baggy pair of jeans (like the ones I have used as examples here) with denim cargo pants, they are almost interchangeable. My preferred outfit for either of them would be a pair of chunky sneakers, a crop top, and a bucket hat!

Read: 90s Jeans: The Fabric Of Our Lives

Cargo Shorts – The Forgotten Cousin of Cargo Pants

Cargo shorts had a very short-lived 5 minutes of fame and then fell into oblivion. Maybe you have seen them in safari movies or being worn by archaeologists…I can almost picture them in a setting like Jurassic Park or something to do with a mummy! 

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t wear them today, not even if one jumped at me from a dark corner in my closet. I guess from a practical standpoint they make sense, but if you’re not going to use those side pockets…I would much rather not have that bulk making my thighs look bigger, thank you very much!

Picking your Cargo Pants Outfit: By Color

White Cargo Pants – An Elegant Cargo

The color white is usually associated with innocence, light, and perfection. This might be why white cargo pants are the most naturally elegant, especially when combined with other white clothing items, or in black and white outfits with a streamlined look.

My two favorite styles for white cargo pants are either with chunky white sneakers or delicate strappy high-heeled sandals. If the pants are cuffed at the ankle, like this pair, the eye is naturally drawn to the feet. So make sure you make the most of it, either by showcasing your classic white Vans or your favorite pair of sandals. 

A word of advice: do not wear white pants if you are accident-prone, or if you’re going out with friends who tend to drop drinks on the regular. I remember quite vividly a night out with friends in which I was showered with red wine while wearing a pair of white dressy pants. Let me tell you, it was a blood bath!

I don’t think I’ve worn white pants ever since. If you are daring enough to go for it anyway, be aware that it will easily show any stains or marks, and bring a dark sweater or blazer, just in case. 

Beige Cargo Pants – The Classic of Classics

Beige works in mysterious ways (a lot like denim) in the sense that I have yet to see a color that cannot be put together with either a cream, tan, or sand shade. That being said, my favorite combo for beige is either black or white because of the contrast they both bring to the table. 

I’m a huge fan of the drama that a pair of black combat boots, combined with beige cargo pants and a black crop top, bring to the table. This is a color combination that works no matter your age and that would muster even Coco Chanel’s approval.

Swap the crop top for a black shirt and the cuffed cargo pants for a wide-leg pair and you have transformed your look from ultra-casual to work-appropriate in seconds.

Red Cargo Pants – A Sexy Novelty

Red is a sexy color. It’s associated with love, allure, and femme fatales for decades. What I like the most about red cargo pants is that it is unexpected, badass and it has a punk vibe that totally rocks my boat.

I’m not a huge fan of camouflage, but even I am digging that fantasy print. Go for combat boots, or Doc Martens, and pair them up with a leather jacket and a vintage band t-shirt for the ultimate rock chick ensemble.

Read: Doc Martens: Off-Duty-Model Look Style Guide for Women

Green Cargo Pants – A New Take On Army Green

Get inspired by these three very different styles of pants and choose your shade! Without a doubt, if I had to choose my favorite type of green, it would be army green. However, I have to admit that both the neon and apple hues look particularly yummy on cargo pants. 

A little piece of advice if you are buying online, do keep in mind that nylon fabrics look much more casual and athletic than either cotton or satin (even if the pictures don’t show it!). On the other hand, satin cargo pants with heels are a very stylish option for a dressy occasion. 

Black Cargo Pants – The Badass Choice

Black is my absolute favorite color! Historically, it has a ton of negative connotations like grieving and such, but anyone knows that there is nothing like the magic of a little black dress or a basic black uniform to get you out the door in 5 minutes record time when you overslept.

If you have to choose only one color, I would definitely go for black. The number of outfits you can put together is endless. Be it skinny fit, like this pair or straight-leg cargo pants, you can never go wrong. Pair them up with a loose-fitting sweatshirt or a cropped t-shirt for ultimate comfort.

Outfit Ideas: By Clothing Type

T-Shirts & Tops

There is literally no t-shirt or top that doesn’t go well with cargo pants.

Feeling chic? Pair a white strappy tee with khaki pants, a matching sailor cap, and heels for a posh and smart-casual outfit. No-fuss morning? Relax in a tight crop top and black nylon pants while wearing your favorite Converse.

Out for a stroll? Don your loose sweatshirt and chunky sneakers and be Insta ready for that cute selfie. Anything you grab from your closet will be a good fit!

Read: The Clash of All-Stars: Converse High Tops vs Low Tops

Jackets & Outerwear

I am all about adding flair with the outerwear. If I had to pick one, a black leather jacket or a woollen long coat would be my top choices for a cosmopolitan look that is all about the outer layers. Of course, either a denim jacket or a furry coat will do, too!

The key to making the outfit work is balancing the colors. If you go for contrast, have at least one other item in the same color or shade (like the jacket and boots in the first picture).

If you opt for the same color palette, pick the same shade as the main item of the look (in this case, the pants) like in the other two images. Contrasting elements look daring and add a little edge, whereas same-color ones look polished and classic.

Boots, Shoes, and Heels

Vans slip-on skate shoes, high-heeled sandals, or Doc Martens… Each can define the style of the ensemble. Vans tend to go better with loose-fitting tops and a relaxed attitude.

Sandals look their best with skinny-fitting or cuffed ankle pants, bonus points if you add a long lacy cardigan or matching belt and bag. Docs have a nice rocker vibe, so why not pair them up with cargo pants in a Burberry print and a white tee for the perfect music festival outfit? 

Read: Battle of the Footwear: Vans vs Converse

Sweaters

I think I have more sweaters in my closet than any other item, so I needed to include some tips for other sweater-loving gals out there! First and foremost, do not be afraid of adding bulk. Think big, chunky sweaters with knots, high necks, or slouchy sweaters with a slipping shoulder. Balance the slouchiness with smart footwear like high heels or boots. Keep your accessories to a minimum and match your purse to your shoes for an elegant touch. 

How to Put Together Your Outfit: By Occasion 

Smart Casual – Your Best Self, on the Street

Keeping it casual does not mean you can’t look your best! Pair your cargo pants with a matching jacket and white sneakers for the ultimate plane-wear, or relax at home in a white blouse and flat sandals.

For going out, a high neck sweater and high heels add a little fancy to a straight-fit pair of pants with elastic ankle cuffs. Either way, totally chic and ready for anything!

Dressy – not quite Red Carpet, but Almost

Dress up your cargo pants with super feminine ultra-high heels stilettos and instantly elevate the whole outfit. Be it golden boots, an embroidered cargo pant (with matching sandals), or a tartan long blazer… Make the outfit your own, and don’t be afraid to shine!

Business Casual – to the Office, Big Apple Style

There is no age to wear cargo pants and there is no occasion they can’t accommodate either.

With a fun printed shirt and either sneakers or sandals, they can also be business-worthy. If you want something more demure, forgo the creative print and go for a neutral color like white, beige or black and keep your outfit streamlined and minimalist.

On the other hand, if you are in the design industry, pair a nice off-shoulder top or shirt with strappy gladiator sandals and khaki cargo pants. 

Cute – A Note of Sweet, on Your Terms

Bring your inner beauty to light and make the most of current trends by pairing your favorite cargo pants with your most romantic tops and cutesy footwear. I can’t stop looking at those pink boots, I am totally in love! Same with the cropped off-shoulder ruffled blouse, it’s a great investment for summer that you can wear with so many other things too!

Festival Style – Coachella, Here We Come

Festivals are the perfect moment to be stylish and different but you should always prioritize comfort over looks because chances are, you will be spending quite a lot of time standing and walking about.

Cargo pants can be the perfect ally to achieve your dream outfit without compromising. Go for cushioned sneakers or boots, either crop tops or long-sleeved t-shirts, and vests or large jackets for the ultimate layering. 

Bibliography

  • Loschek, Ingrid (2009). When clothes become fashion: design and innovation systems. 
  • Stalder, Erika (2008). Fashion 101: A Crash Course in Clothing. San Francisco, CA: Orange Avenue Publishing.
  • Steele, Valerie (2000). Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. Yale University Press (first published August 11th, 1997)
Previous articleMy Absolute Favourite Clueless Outfits Details Decoded
Lorena Lombardo is a fashion designer specialized in trend forecasting and fashion journalism. She studied at the UAL (University of London), ORT (Universidad ORT Uruguay), and taken various courses about traditional craftsmanship while living in Tokyo. Some of her favorite memories during the 90s include wearing bucket hats and trying to copy Rachel’s hairstyle. Her absolute favorite show was Buffy: the Vampire Slayer but she was also a huge fan of Clueless because of its amazing fashion choices. Her top track of the decade is currently disputed between How soon is Now? by the Smiths and Here with me by Dido. Both also happen to be the opening songs for two great 90s shows: Charmed and Roswell. Coincidence? I think not!

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