Are You Team Shorts or Team Cargo Pants?

From left: Aknvas Spring 2024, Pedro Pascal wearing Valentino at the 2023 Met Gala, Junya Watanabe Menswear Spring 2024

Unless, of course, you’re a cargo pant devotee.

The world is becoming increasingly polarized. We tend to think of this in terms of politics — the erosion of the middle ground, the lack of compromise, an aversion to different points of view. These days, people seem to be more comfortable when they’re entrenched in an ideological camp, far removed from those who disagree with them. This phenomenon goes beyond politics, though; it even extends to matters of fashion and personal style.

In menswear right now, two distinct looks have emerged for below-the-waist dressing. In one camp, skin-baring short shorts. (Think celebs like Paul Mescal, Jeremy Allen White and Pedro Pascal and designers like Thom Browne and Valentino.) In the other, oversized cargo pants like those seen on Gen Z influencers, Justin Bieber and a wide range of runways.

These A-listers are flag-bearers, of sorts, for their respective camps, but they’re far from the most zealous. If anything, they might even be a bit timid in their embrace of the styles. For the hard-liners, however, the difference between short shorts and cargo pants is about more than baring thighs; it’s an indication of how one sees the world — a clothing-based Rorschach test. So, what exactly are you saying if you’re unflinching in your commitment to cargos or if you swear by the shortest of shorts?

In the beginning, short shorts were about ergonomics — an almost-exclusively-athletic proposition. The likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan took to NBA courts in the ’70s and ’80s wearing three- or four-inch inseams. Nowadays, you’ll still see soccer players and long-distance runners rocking a sky-high hem, but perhaps no one is more enthusiastic about showing off their “meaty clackers” than James Harris and Lawrence Schlossman, the hosts of Throwing Fits — a menswear podcast based in New York. The pair have long expounded on the superiority of “five-inch baggies” (which refers to the inseam) and have dedicated their podcast’s Instagram account to meta-referential memes and fans’ summer-fit pics (though even they have been known to don cargos when the temperature drops).

Why the obsession? Well, short shorts aren’t just a trend; they’re a lifestyle. They’ve become both aspirational and relatable — the item that’s the easiest to crib from the rich, famous and/or generationally wealthy. These warm-weather bottoms embody a laissez-faire attitude that calls to mind beach vacations and tennis matches in resort towns, where you don’t actually need to worry about carrying anything with you. They make a statement without actually representing a sartorial risk. At this extreme of the ideological spectrum of fashion, the shorts are so short there’s nary anywhere to hide anything.

The opposing pole is best typified by a pair of pants produced by Cologne-based brand No/Faith Studios: denim cargos pushed to their theoretical extreme, with 64 pockets and a ballooning silhouette. One assumes there’s more than enough room to hide anything.

At their roots, cargo pants are as blue-collar as they come. They were designed to offer the wearer ample room to carry utilitarian items. Historically, these have ranged from MREs (meals ready to eat) in the military to a custodian’s impressively large set of keys. Of course, over the years, cargos have also been embraced by those looking to carry illicit goods on their person — which is what the No/Faith Studios design calls to mind, with its dozens of dime bag-size pockets.

However, these trendy trousers are also infused with a sense of anxiety — about both the state of the world and the economy. In a dystopian apocalypse, cargo pants could let you carry everything you might need to survive. And in an economic recession, they could be a sign of a recent demotion, such as being let go from your suit-and-tie job and transitioning into something more proletarian.

As such, the divide between short shorts and carryall cargos is more than just aesthetic in nature; it’s a question of uncertainty and how one deals with it. Are you more of a bon vivant who’s happy to go with the flow in your resort-ready shorts? Or are you prepared for the unexpected and always on edge?

According to some, it doesn’t matter which school of thought you belong to as long as you’re part of a school of thought. Appearing on Throwing Fits in November 2023, New York Times pop-music critic Jon Caramanica surmised that our current era is defined by “people going incredibly deep [down rabbit holes] and committing to an aesthetic or a silhouette” and appealing to “small cliques.” Or, as Schlossman puts it, it’s a form of stylistic tribalism. We dress for those who are like us, for those who understand us, for those who see things the same way we do.

Unless, of course, you have a closet full of cargo shorts. That would put you in a political middle ground of increasing rarity — not to mention a style vacuum. Cargo shorts are oft-maligned (perhaps because they refuse to pick a camp) and the sartorial equivalent of dithering, which is fitting since they are often worn with flip-flops. In these polarized times, where we prize unflinching commitment to our tribes and avoid conceding an inch to those at the other end of the spectrum, a disdain for cargo shorts might be the only place where short shorts wearers and cargo pants aficionados see things the same way: Pick a camp and stick with it.


This article first appeared in FASHION’s March 2024 issue. Find out more here.

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