This Drexel Professor Did His Ph.D. Thesis on Cargo Pants

Joseph Hancock, a merchandising professor at Drexel, wrote a 328-page thesis on cargo pants. We talk to him about the much-reviled garment.

Joseph Hancock - Drexel professor wearing cargo pants

Drexel associate professor Joseph Hancock stands on the steps at the school’s URBN Center. Yes, he’s wearing cargo pants. | Photo: Dan McQuade

A Wall Street Journal story captivated the Internet last week.

It wasn’t a commentary on the presidential election or an investigation into corporate wrongdoing. No, the article that dominated the Journal’s web traffic for most of last week was headlined: “Nice Cargo Shorts! You’re Sleeping on the Sofa.” The story detailed the men, mostly over 40, who love cargo shorts, and the women in their lives who hate their pants.

It was a sensation. The Washington Post defended them. So did Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who called them “the most comfortable things ever.” The funniest article was probably by Vice’s Harry Cheadle, who liveblogged a reading of the Journal story.

Quoted in the Journal’s story was Drexel professor Joseph Hancock, who (the article informed us) actually wrote his Ph.D. thesis on cargo pants. The merchandising and design professor’s 2007 thesis was titled “These Aren’t The Same Pants Your Grandfather Wore: The Evolution of Branding Cargo Pants in 21st Century Mass Fashion.”

Hancock has been at Drexel since 2004. He has his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Indiana, and got his Ph.D. at Ohio State in 2007. Before that, he worked for a decade at The Gap, and also worked as a consultant for The Limited brands’ Structure (now Express Men) and as a field merchant for Target. He recently sat down with Philadelphia magazine for a talk. This interview has been lightly edited for style and condensed.

How did you first become interested in cargo pants?

I am a generation X-er, so I am a child of the ’80s. I’ve always had this affinity towards pants with pockets, be they what you call cargo pants or not. In the wonderful ’80s, we had those things called parachute pants. I actually was inspired a lot by the people that I related to in TV. I completely do not look like I looked back then so I really was into bands like the Thompson Twins, The Clash, Bananarama, Fun Boy Three, and so a lot of times their ensembles included baggy/pocketed pants. So that’s kind of where the whole idea of the aesthetic for me came from. So then I started searching out where can I get pants similar to The Clash. One of the members of the Clash always wore camouflage cargo pants, and so when you wanted to get those you couldn’t go to the mall back then. You had to go to the Army/Navy Surplus store.

How did you end up writing your thesis on cargo pants?

I went to my Ph.D. advisor and I said to her, you know, has anybody ever done cargo pants, the history of cargo pants as a study? And Dr. Cunningham said, well yeah, everyone’s done military. I said no, no, no, has anyone just written about the pants? And she said, I don’t know, but I don’t know if it’s a dissertation topic. So we cut a deal. So in 1996, she said okay. I said, can I do a conference presentation on cargo pants? Could I put in an abstract, talk about cargo pants, and if someone walks up to me and, says, ‘Oh, this is your dissertation topic,’ I can do it? And she said, okay fine. So we went to the Pop Culture American Culture Association. That’s an association I belong to. And I got up and I did a talk, and I took a suitcase of about 20 pairs of cargo pants with me.

So a woman sitting in the audience whose name is Dr. Jo Paoletti, and she’s at the University of Maryland. She walked up to me and said, this obviously is your dissertation topic. Which, she and [my advisor Trish Cunningham] are friends, and Trish was like, okay, I guess you can do this.

How did cargo pants first come to be made?

Post-World War I, the U.S. was a manufacturing mecca. The military has their own, what you might want to call a design house, which is a quartermaster regime. These people that work under this in this area, they actually design military uniforms. It’s kind of like how we have the new digitized camouflage look. There are actual designers that look and see how they can advance military uniforms.

So what happened at the time is this item was designed based upon the need. William P. Yarborough really was the leader who said, I really am sick and tired of seeing my soldiers standing around with their hands in their pockets. And I want a pant where they cannot put their hands in their pockets. But the comeback was: But they still need the pockets to store ammunition. Okay, so we’re going to move the pockets to the side. So that’s kind of the ideology.

The first cargo pants, really there’s no pocket [in the front]. It just a side pocket on the side and the back pockets. Anyway, this idea and this design kind of hits the UK, too. It hits Spanish and British soldiers all at the same time. So probably because all these things were being manufactured in similar facilities, there was the stealing of ideas. What’s interesting is they occur in all three of those military regimes simultaneously.

How did the cargo pant go from the military to general consumer use?

People came home from wartime with their fatigues and they wore them. And through dissemination and through this concept of seeing people in them, mass fashion picked them up. They’d never really been a mass-produced, mass-fashion item until the late’90s. However, that doesn’t mean that subcultural groups have not worn them — as a complete sign of protest, the hippies wore ripped and torn camo clothing [while protesting the Vietnam War].

But what’s interesting is the big folks that really pick it up and make it popular again in the ’80s are preppies. Because of it’s classic style and its association to military. If you think about preppy dress, which is really funny … preppy style really has a lot of military style garments in it that are key fashion components. And that’s probably tied to the whole concept of quality, durability, timelessness. Like the T-shirt, which comes from the Navy, is timeless. Preppy is what picked up the polo shirt — the Lacoste polo shirt, which was a tennis garment. So sports and military apparel really infiltrated into that whole movement. And then designers that were noted for that movement, like Ralph Lauren, The Gap, picked them up and moved them into mass fashion.

When you investigated the market for cargo pants when you worked for Structure, what did that entail?

There were a couple things that were happening. One, I had to pick up all marketing. I would actually get marketing [from other stores] on pants. So if stores were doing a promo of any kind, like some stores were doing flyers or something, I’d have to go out and get those.

The other thing I was responsible for: The Abercrombie magalogue was big at the time. Because if you look at all the Abercrombie ads from the late ’90s, the models in the ads are, of course, all half naked. But if you look at the bottoms of all these models, they’re all wearing some kind of cargo utility stuff. So you know, you have boobs up here and cargo pants down here, which is really kind of funny.

The other thing I did was I actually contacted all the advertising services. So I would call them and I would say we need ads for anything on, that’s dealing with cargo pants. Do you remember all those Old Navy ads, when they had Magic the dog? There are tons of cargo pant ads with Carrie Donovan and Magic. So Old Navy did an explosion of these. They did the tie-waisted cargo, which was a copy of Structure’s X Pant. They did cargo shorts. They did, you know, cargo for the family.

My job was looking at all types of media at the time. It was looking at print, which was at that time big. Magazine tears, going through magazines, looking at anything in Men’s GQ or any of the international men’s magazines, and visiting the stores.

How much did Abercrombie and Fitch contribute to the cargo pant trend?

I say that they’re probably in the top. I’d say the big players at the time, were basically, as you can tell from reading my work, Abercrombie and Fitch. I think Old Navy was a big contender at the time, for the more budget-conscious market. And I think Ralph Lauren was a huge market contender as well.

Abercrombie had so much market share of the youngsters and the teenagers … those people that were flocking to Abercrombie and Fitch are now the ones that are married, and their wives don’t like their cargo shorts. But they want to keep those cargo shorts. But I think that they were a huge contender. And if you remember the controversy too back then, Abercrombie and Fitch was known as, you know, everyone was like, they’re the elitist. They got accused of being racist, they got accused of other stuff.

How much has branding and image contributed to people wearing cargo pants?

We’re talking about the demise of the cargo pant, but I don’t think the cargo pant is in demise. I think it’s been reinvented. If you go to page 11 in the Target circular this week, there’s two young guys from high school, and they’re wearing slim cargos. Marketing plays a huge component into what we’re going to wear next, and branding plays a huge component. You’re the cargo pant high school generation and the cargo short. But now it’s the jogger — that slim pant with the adjusted waist bottom. Well, the Target circular has a pair of cargo joggers.

Everything from the ’90s and the early 2000s has slimmed down, so that’s become the silhouette. Big and bulky is now not cool, but I think a lot of it has to do with marketing and branding. Because what we do is once everyone has consumed a certain garment or a certain thing, retailers have to think, well, what are you going to do next. What direction are you going to go?

That’s why someday if you ever decide to have little ones and you have to go back-to-school shopping, one year you’re going to go back-to-school shopping and the jeans are going to be dark. The next year you’re going to go and the jeans are going to be light. Then the next year you’re going to go and they’re going to have rips in them. Then the next year you’re going to go and they’re going to be rigid denim. Because retailers have to keep that trend going in order to get you to consume more.

It’s same thing with cargo pants. It’s basically the silhouette changes. It’s still a cargo pant but it could be a jogger cargo pant. Or like the ones I’m wearing today, you know. They’re not baggy. They’re basically like just a regular fit khaki pant with cargo pockets. So everything gets reinvented.

Why do you think cargo pants are so reviled by some?

I think it’s a look. I think it’s a look that’s either a) really liked, or b) really hated. I’m not a social media junkie, but I’ve been following this. I don’t see really horrendous comments from men. I see a lot of horrendous comments from women. But, and I actually have to tell you this, I got a couple of emails from women academics who sent me emails. I don’t know these people, that have said that they hate cargo shorts. I think it’s funny, out of the blue from different universities. They’ve sent me emails saying that they hate cargo shorts.

You know, men are still sometimes perceived as the breadwinner. And so when you’re perceived in that regard, the first thing that goes with a guy usually, is when the heat is on and they have kids, clothing. They stop shopping. They don’t shop. They’re focused on cars. They’ll buy electronic devices. They’ll buy, you know, and if you’re buying this stuff those cargo pockets are still great because they store things. But the last thing they’ll do is really focus on their own appearance.

Men have a tendency to negate their own appearance, especially as they get older. And so I said, those guys haven’t thrown them away because they’re still wearing them because they’re allowing their wife to buy new clothes. They’re buying clothes for kids. That’s why they still have 15 pairs of cargo shorts. Because in the ’90s when they were in college and high school trying to attract the girl to go out with, right, the person to go out, they were buying clothes then. They haven’t been buying them now. So they haven’t advanced and they haven’t thrown them away.

You wear cargo pants.

I wear cargo pants and shorts.

Do you keep things in these pockets or are they just for fashion?

I do. I don’t have anything in them today, though normally, this is what I’m carrying around. And the only reason I put stuff down here is that I don’t like anything up here. It’s easier to reach.

So for people who are cargo short and cargo pants fans, which brands would you recommend?

For the person who wants the fashion cargo short, who’s into the high end style, Diesel still does really good cargo shorts. I think Ralph Lauren does a great cargo short. If you’re the budge consumer you could still go to the Old Navy and buy their cargo shorts. J. Crew did a good cargo short this year too.

I had not been into Abercrombie and Fitch since probably 2010, and this actually made me walk back into the store. I actually went in and looked at their cargo shorts and they’re actually doing more of a, like an extra-sized nylon-ish cargo short. But it’s shorter. It’s shorter and the pocket is probably what you’re talking about. The pocket is squared on the side and you unzip here to put stuff in. So they’re not, so they kind of changed it up a bit. It’s more of an exercise short.

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