Joseph Hancock on the great cargo shorts controversy | The Triangle

Joseph Hancock on the great cargo shorts controversy

Photo by Alexandra Jones
Photo by Alexandra Jones

In early August viewership spiked on the Wall Street Journal’s webpage. Reporter Nicole Hong had written a story on cargo shorts and the unexpected havoc they wreak in marriages.

It didn’t take long for the article to take off. Hong recounted a tale everyone seemed to know — of a cargo short happy husband and a not so pleased spouse:

“Dane Hansen, who operates a small steel business in Pleasant Grove, Utah, says that throughout his 11-year marriage, 15 pairs of cargo shorts have slowly disappeared from his closet. On the occasions when he has confronted his wife about the missing shorts, she will either admit to throwing them away or deflect confrontation by saying things like, ‘Honey, you just need a little help.’

Mr. Hansen, 35 years old, is now down to one pair of cargo shorts, and he guards them closely. He has hidden them in small closet nooks where his wife can’t find them…”

“Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.”

Soon, media outlets like the Washington Post, NPR and Cosmopolitan were weighing in on Hong’s deliciously detailed cargo controversy. VICE’s Harry Cheadle live blogged a reading, providing humorous commentary. Blogs around the country took off with posts to discuss whether martial boundaries should include a line drawn in front of the closet.

At the center of it all was Joseph Hancock, a design and merchandising professor at Drexel and Hong’s referenced cargo short expert. As her story gained widespread popularity, Hancock received calls from media outlets around the country.

Why? Because Hancock wrote his doctoral thesis on cargo pants in 2007. He titled it: “These Aren’t The Same Pants Your Grandfather Wore: The Evolution of Branding Cargo Pants in 21st Century Mass Fashion.”

Essentially, the 328-page thesis documents the pilgrimage of cargo pants in the fashion world. It all began after World War I when William P. Yarborough, a United States army officer, decided he was tired of seeing his soldiers standing around with their hands in their pockets. He wanted a pant for his soldiers that wouldn’t tempt improper proper posture. A pant with pockets, but not where hands could reach them easily. Thus, the cargo pant was born.

After the war, soldiers returned to America sporting their new pants and clothing companies soon picked up the style each putting their own spin on the design.

As a teenager, Hancock, drew from the look of his favorite bands The Clash, Bananarama and The Thompson Twins, which all displayed a baggier ’90s-esque image on stage. The clothes they’d wear, he explained, couldn’t be picked up at the mall because they’d be wearing vintage. So, in order to get the cargo pants, he’d seen on MTV Hancock would shop at the army/navy surplus store.

“As an eighteen year old, I thought I was inventing fashion, of course,” he said. “At the time, also, the big craze in fashion was the preppy look. If you didn’t have Lacoste, a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, or Tommy Hilfiger oxfords if you really weren’t wearing that preppy style you really weren’t anyone. However, what I liked to do was take the preppy look, but [combine] it [with] a utilitarian look.”

Hancock would wear something like a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, with sneakers and a camo pant. Utilitarian fashion, he called it. Although he wouldn’t sit down to pen his thesis on cargo pants until the late 2000s, this was the beginning of his interest in the cargo pant as a fashion icon.

In fact, up until recently, Hancock owned about 135 pairs of cargo shorts and pants.  Following their transformation fashion as part of his cargo collection has become a hobby for him. Although he’s since given his collection away, he still keeps them all digitally, organized in a file called “Cargo Fever” where he sorts them by season, year and brand.

Hancock has been teaching retail and fashion courses at Drexel since 2004. He was contacted by Hong to talk on cargo shorts and their controversy as an expert and has since been contacted by numerous media outlets with follow-up questions.

“What was interesting to me about the article was that the cargo shorts that they’re discussing… are not the cargo shorts that are out in stores,” Hancock said, referring to the shorts mentioned in the WSJ article.

It’s the cargo shorts from the ’90s that everyone hates, he explained.

“They were really popular with brands like Abercrombie & Fitch. Of course, you might not like the big, boxy look of the ‘90s in the 21st century, but as I keep telling interviewers and people in the media, the cargo short has changed. It’s not the same short as it was in 1998.”

Unless, of course, it’s been hiding in a closet for almost 20 years, in which case it is the exact same short just as boxy and unappealing as it was when the Spice Girls ruled the world.

These are the shorts Ashleigh Hansen evidently spends the days pillaging through her husband’s closet for because they’re baggy and out of style. They’re noticeably bulkier than the preferred trim silhouettes sold in stores today.

“It’s become a little bit slimmer, it’s become a little bit shorter, it’s not as boxy as it used to be. It reflects the style of what’s going on today,” Hancock explained.

The cargo shorts of the ’90s, the ones everyone’s riled up about, were made by Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch  they were the big players back in the day for high schoolers and college kids with sexy catalogues featuring attractive models. But they peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the rise of electronic gadgets and gizmos that made the optimal pockets functional for wearers.

Nowadays, cargo pants are still on the racks, but their look has changed.

“We’ve kind of moved into the ’60s and ’70s silhouette where everything’s just a little bit narrower. We’re mimicking the fashions of the ’80s and the ’90s, but we’re giving them a ’60s and a ’70s cut,” Hancock explained.

“So, everything’s slimmer even though some of the fashions that we’re wearing we consider ’80s,” he surmised.

Hancock says the reason that so many men haven’t moved on from the ’90s pant is because they have other priorities now shopping isn’t on the top of their minds.

“They have jobs. Some of them have families. They have kids. They’re buying houses. They’re buying new cars…” he listed.

Maybe it’s that these men just aren’t making time to go out and buy the newer cargo pant models. Maybe it’s that they aren’t aware the ’90s silhouette has become so unsightly. Whatever the case, Hancock has some bad news for those who hate the cargo pant: it’s a classic, which means it’s here for good.

“It’s going to get re-silhouetted and it’s going to get reinvented, but it’s never going away,” he says.

Unless of course you’re a man with a closet-hacking wife then, no promises.