Cargo shorts debate: To wear or not to wear?

Go through a man’s closet or dresser and you’re likely to find items there that are more about comfort and function than fashion. That’s why a fiery debate erupted after a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that men who wear cargo shorts are destined to sleep on the sofa.

CBS News contributor Jamie Wax took to the streets of New York City and the halls of high fashion to see if we could find the definitive answer. While some fashionistas say it’s time for them to go, many men say: keep your hands off my shorts.

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“What’s wrong with cargo shorts? I mean, these are comfortable. I think they look nice,” one man said. And it’s not just men defending them.

“You love the cargo shorts?” Wax asked a couple, Jamie and Lisa.

“I do. When I don’t want to carry a purse, he has --” Lisa said.

“He is your purse?!” Wax said.

“He’s my ChapStick, my lipstick, my mascara, my cellphone, my driver’s license, my money. He has everything,” Lisa responded.

How did cargo shorts infiltrate men’s fashion? They trace their roots back to the military, according to Drexel University professor Joe Hancock who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on cargo pants.

“The upper echelon of the military did not like soldiers putting their hands in their pockets, so they got the idea to move the pockets to the side of the garment and keep pockets in the back of the garment but none in the front.  So that became the first four-pocket cargo pant,” Hancock said.

“At what point did the cargo pants become the cargo shorts?” Wax asked him.

“There is a cargo pant that historically in the military that was a zip-off pant,” Hancock said. It zipped off at the knee. “So that becomes the forerunner to the cargo short,” he explained.

The multi-pocketed shorts have been gracing the racks in stores like Old Navy and J.C. Penney for years. Today they account for more than $700 million in sales in the U.S. That’s much to the chagrin of GQ magazine’s style guy Mark Anthony Green.

“Cargo shorts have been the scourge of men’s fashion for – since, you know, for decades now,” Green said. “Cargo shorts have the pockets on your thighs, so when you stuff ‘em, it looks like you have really big thighs. It’s so – for a guy, unless you’re in peak physical condition, it just is very unflattering.”

“So what do we do with all that stuff, Mark?” Wax asked.

“You shouldn’t carry – why do you have all those things? I mean, you need your wallet and you need your phone. And everything else, you know – get a briefcase?” Green said. 

While there are dissenters, the majority of people we spoke to loved their cargo shorts.

“I think cargo shorts are great!” one person said.

“They’re comfortable,” another agreed.

Even the author of the Wall Street Journal article, Nicole Hong, apologized for “igniting the Cargo Shorts Wars.”

Durand Guion is the vice president and men’s fashion director at Macy’s, where cargo shorts have been on full display all summer. Guion says the modern, more fashionable cargo short has a slimmer fit and smaller pockets.

“So it’s really about the update to the cargo pocket short. But it will never, ever die,” Guion said.

That’s the long and the short of it. Maybe now the national debate can move on to something really important, like “jorts” – or jean shorts.