In Depth: A Potted History of Military Trousers and Cargo Pants
From fatigue pants to chinos, military design has donated countless classic trousers to the cultural canon. With this season’s trouser range featuring a few new military-inspired creations (as well as a few Cabourn classics), here’s a brief history of military trousers and cargo pants…
The blueprint for what might be termed ‘modern military legwear’ was drawn up in the wood-panelled enclaves of the British War Office back in the early 1930s. The British Army had been fighting in the same uniform since the early 1900s, but with warfare constantly evolving as the gallop of horses made way for the slow crawl of armoured tanks, the almost-formal ‘Service Dress’ uniform was starting to seem a little old fashioned.
After years of research, trialling everything from deerstalker hats to safari jackets, a new standardised uniform was created which could be quickly put to use across a large chunk of the British military… Battle Dress.
Released in 1938, the new uniform was built with modern combat in mind. The short blouson jacket’s curved sleeves might have looked a little strange on infantry standing at ease, but they made things far more comfortable when aiming a rifle or driving a truck. Formality had been replaced by functionality, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the design of the Battle Dress trousers.
A giant leap forward from the pleated-pants of yore, these were equipped with a roomy map pocket just above the left knee, and a smaller field dressing pocket on the right hip. Fairly simple details by today’s standards, but these features meant military trousers were no longer mere ‘leg coverings’ and had became a crucial component in a wider array of kit, all designed to work together. After all, a big creased map wasn’t much good if you didn’t have the pocket to put it in.
This new uniform was swiftly put to use during WW2, and whilst a few older officers weren’t best pleased about the more modern get-up—with one famously stating “I'm not going to die dressed like a third-rate chauffeur”—it quickly proved itself on the battlefield, and was soon adopted by Canada, Australia and India.
Meanwhile, over in the USA, a commander named William P. Yarborough was charged with the task of reinventing the uniform worn by US Army paratroopers. This lot would often jump out of aeroplanes with over 100lbs of equipment strapped to their back, so as a way to spread the weight, Yarborough did away with the older ‘jumpsuit’ coveralls in favour of a two-piece uniform with pockets aplenty.
The cotton twill trousers were a natural development of the British Battle Dress design, built around a simple equation… more pocket-space meant more stuff could be carried. The highly-specific pockets of the British design were swapped out for two oversized bellows pockets (to carry everything from socks to hand grenades), and the first ‘cargo pants’ had been created.
At a time when some unlucky US Army armoured units were still wearing wool horse riding breeches (and others in tropical areas chose to fight in their work-suits instead of sweating it out in their wool uniforms), these functional cotton trousers were soon noticed by the rest of the US Army, and in 1943 they were issued across the board as part of the M-43 uniform.
As with all design, things didn’t sit still for long, and although it seems like pocket-heavy cargo pants have been a military fixture since WW2, they fell out of favour with the US Army in the early 50s, when the more streamlined OD-107 fatigue pants were introduced. With two simple rectangular front patch pockets, these were a noticeable shift away from the previous design and a fixture of the Korean and the first half of the Vietnam War. Only when the military sat down in 1962 to design a specific tropical weather uniform for the humid forests of Vietnam (with William P. Yaborough at the helm once again), did cargo pants return.
As well as these fairly standardised designs which were often produced in huge numbers, a few more niche options were made for specific military branches of the military. There are far too many to name in this brief article, but unique creations like the insulated cold weather pants worn by the Royal Navy after WW2 (which were so thick they needed cuts in the knees to allow movement), and the monkey pants (with their massive three-button pocket across the rear) worn by USMC mechanics in the Pacific Theatre are just a few examples of the kind of design ingenuity that was being thrown around in the middle of the 20th century.
All the while, a new industry was booming back on civvy street. With more military gear being made than ever, stacks of old war-time wares were being auctioned off by the boatload, and during the 50s, 60s and 70s countless army surplus shops popped up in small towns across Britain, the United States, and pretty much any other country that had excess army-garb to shift.
With nothing in the way of the outdoor clothing industry like there is today, these shops and their endless stacks of olive-drab cotton provided high-quality, easily-attainable clothing for climbers, hikers, campers, hunters and fishermen. Throw in countless film appearances, a slew of sub-cultures and the everlasting appeal of olive cotton, and it’s no wonder these functional garments outgrew their military roots to become part of everyday life. It’s maybe a fairly basic assertion, but if a pair of trousers were designed to put up with the rigours of war, they’ll probably put up with pretty much everything else.
This season Nigel Cabourn and his design team have worked on a wide range of trousers inspired by classic military design. The WW2 Pants are based around the classic British Battle Dress trousers, and feature the same signature pocket configuration, whilst the Arctic Pants are a lightweight, jersey-cotton homage to naval legwear. There’s also the Cold Weather Pants, which combine details from both the USMC monkey pants and RAF flight suits. Whilst each design is influenced by vintage pieces, they’re all created with modern life in mind.