Learning how to wear cargo pants stylishly isn't as hard as you might think.
Sure, get it wrong and you could end up looking like a reject from the G.I Joe fan club. However, with the right styling tricks up your sleeve, you can look pretty awesome in a pair of classic American cargo pants.
In today's article, I'm breaking out my top tips on how to wear cargo pants and look great doing it. So whether you're looking for a new style to try or just need some inspiration, you'll discover:
- A Brief History Of Cargo Pants
- What Can You Wear With Cargo Pants?
- What Looks Weird With Cargo Pants?
- How To Accessorize When Wearing Cargo Pants
- Cargo Pants Look Book
#1 A Brief History Of Cargo Pants
Cargo pants were first popularized in the military during WW2, when British soldiers came to realize their potential as versatile and convenient battle-wear. Unlike previous military uniforms worn in WW1 and the 1800s, cargo pants were far more convenient and far less ‘tailored' than the classic uniforms of years gone by.
It wasn't long until the US military also picked up on this style of uniform and started to produce them en masse for their own soldiers during the Second World War. This is where the really interesting history of cargo pants begins.
France was allied with the US during WW2. As such, we sent across batches of our homemade Cargo pants to the French so that they too could benefit from the tactical convenience of pocketed cargo pants.
However, when France fell to German occupation in 1940, guess who stole those pants to give to their own military units. You guessed it – the Nazis.
Nazi soldiers on board U-boats would wear cargo pants for the same reason as the Brits, Yanks, and French – comfort and convenience on the battlefield. However, when we gave them over to the French, never did we think that the Nazis would get hold of them and start wearing them while sinking our battleships in the middle of the Atlantic!
Since their introduction in the military, cargo pants have become staple style items for men and women across the globe. In the last 50 years, they've been worn on the runway, at anti-war protests, and for comfort around the home. In fact, in 2020, they saw a huge increase in popularity when a slimmer-cut version was released to the public.
#2 What Can You Wear With Cargo Pants?
Cargos are the perfect pants for guys who want to be comfortable but remain stylish and well dressed. But how do you wear them without looking like you're headed out for a day of manual labor?
It's simple – pair them with the right tops and shoes to make sure you're rocking them with style.
Remember, cargo pants are not formal in style. In fact, most designs aren't even suitable for smart-casual environments! For the most part, you should only wear cargo pants when formality isn't an issue and the name of the game is casual and comfortable.
When wearing cargo pants, pair them with:
- Henley shirts – these are great for a casual look. They sit above the formality of a t-shirt without being too over the top.
- Polo shirts – a step up from a t-shirt and Henley, polos are still very casual but can be dressed up with the right accessories. When wearing them with cargo pants, keep your polo shirt untucked and opt for a fit that matches that of your cargo pants.
- Casual button-down shirts – these can add a touch of formality to your look without making it seem like you're trying too hard. Opt for earth tones like beige and brown to provide a military-style colorway for your outfit.
- T-shirts – t-shirts are always going to be a great option when it comes to cargo pants. They're comfortable, they come in a million different designs, and you can dress them up or down very easily. Just make sure your t-shirt fits well and isn't too baggy.
- Hoodies – perfect for lazy days when you don't want to think too much about your outfit. Just throw on a gray hoodie with a pair of baggy cargo pants and enjoy the comfort of ultra-casual clothing.
When it comes to footwear, you've got a lot of options. Cargo pants work with most styles, except the most formal of shoes. Try wearing your pair with:
- White sneakers – these are always going to be a great option. They're comfortable and they go with pretty much everything.
- Boat shoes – these have a casual yet stylish look that's perfect for cargo pants. Just make sure your boat shoes are clean and in good condition before you leave the house!
- Desert boots – another great choice for those who want a stylish but casual look. Again, just make sure your desert boots are clean and in good condition before you leave the house!
- Military boots – if you want to rock a more military-inspired look, then opt for a pair of black or green military boots. Dr Marten boots are a classic style that would work well here.
- Sandals – yes, even sandals can work with cargo pants! Just make sure they're of a simple design and that your feet are well-groomed and clean.
- No shoes – if you're just lounging around the house or taking the dog for a walk, then feel free to leave your shoes at home. Just make sure you're not going to be doing any strenuous activity that might damage your feet!
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#3 What Looks Weird With Cargo Pants?
Sure, cargo pants are really versatile. But when it comes to formal wear, things can get a bit more restricted.
To cut to the chase, here are a few things you should avoid wearing with cargo pants:
- Formal shoes – this includes dress shoes, Oxfords, loafers, and any other kind of shoe that wouldn't normally be considered casual.
- Tuxedos – it should go without saying, but a tux isn't going to work with cargo pants. They sit on the complete opposite ends of the formality spectrum.
- Suit jackets – again, this should be obvious. If you're going to wear a jacket with your cargo pants, make sure it's of the casual variety. If your cargo pants are slim-fit you might be able to pull off a blazer in the right situation, but personally I'd avoid all kinds of tailoring to be on the safe side.
- Dress shirts – a dress shirt is too formal to be worn with cargo pants. If you want to wear a collared shirt, opt for a polo or casual button-down instead.
#4 How To Accessorize When Wearing Cargo Pants
Accessories like belts, watches, and sunglasses are perfect additions to a cargo pants outfit – they'll help to define your style and take your look to the next level.
Belts can actually help to make you look thinner. When wearing baggier cargo pants, using a belt to tuck your waist in can help to give you a slimmer appearance. If your cargo pants are already pretty slim-fit, then a belt isn't really necessary (unless you need one to help keep your pants up!).
A watch is always a great accessory for men. It's practical, it looks stylish, and it can help to make you look more put-together. If you don't normally wear a watch, then now is the time to start. A military or field watch can be a great way to present a classic army aesthetic and stay true to the classic use of cargo pants in times of war.
Sunglasses are perfect for those sunny days when you're wearing cargo pants (or shorts!) to the park with your kids. Obviously, they'll help to keep the sun out of your eyes. However, they can also make you boost that military aesthetic, especially when wearing aviators! Just make sure you choose a style that goes well with your face shape.
#5 Cargo Pants Outfit Ideas
There are hundreds of different styles you can achieve with cargo pants. However, for me, there are a few that stand out as iconic examples of great men's style.
If you're looking to really show off your style and set yourself apart from the millions of cargo-wearing guys out there, try putting together outfits inspired by these lookbook ideas.
The Military Man
At the end of the day, cargo pants are military through and through. So why not embrace this and wear an outfit that suits the style of the US military?
To achieve an accurate military aesthetic, pair your cargo pants with a simple white tee or a camo print shirt. For your outerwear, go for a bomber jacket or an army green parka. And don't forget to accessorize with aviator sunglasses, a watch, and a green canvas belt.
Cargo pants are often associated with being comfortable and relaxed. So why not put together an outfit that's perfect for a day spent doing some light exercise?
Start with a pair of loose-fit cargo pants in a dark color like black, navy, or grey. Then add a moisture-wicking t-shirt in a bright color. For your shoes, go for a pair of running shoes or trainers.
California is known for its surf. Even if you're not from the golden coast, you can still channel that surfer vibe by wearing a loose-fitting vest-top, loose cargo pants, and sandals. After all, it is California we're talking about – the land of eternal summer!
To get that Cali-cargo look, start with a pair of beige or white cargo pants. Then add a black or white vest-top. And finally, slip into a pair of easy-to-wear sandals like Birkenstocks. Accessorize with a beaded bracelet and sunglasses to finish off the look.
The 90s Cargo
Cargos were pretty big during the 90s. There's no shame in bringing that look back and pairing your cargo pants with some classic 90s staples.
Start with a pair of light cargo pants. Then add a black or white t-shirt, and slip into a pair of chunky black sneakers. For your outerwear, go for a denim jacket or hoodie.
Will this style work in warmer climates? Probably not – but it's perfect for those cold winters where layers are key.
Looking for military inspiration in your wardrobe? Check out my guide to 11 styles items with a military heritage.
Are cargo pants just for men who like military style clothing?
No - over the last few years cargo pants have actually become quite mainstream. You'll see kids, women and guys wearing them. Typically, popular cargo pants are thinner cut than traditional military uniform.
Are cargo pants smart-casual?
No - I would stick to wearing your cargo pants in casual situations. There may be some very rare occasions when cargo pants can work in a smart-casual environment, but in general they should be worn exclusively in casual settings.
What shoes should I wear with cargo pants?
Sneakers work well - either retro chunky sneakers or classic white dress sneakers. However, the best shoes to wear with cargo trousers are military boots - after all, that's what they were designed to be worn with!