Urban Outfitters low-rise seamed skate jean, Gap utility carpenter pants, Shein high waist flap pocket whip stitch cargo jeans (Photo: Urban Outfitters, Gap, Shein)" data-caption="Left to right: Urban Outfitters low-rise seamed skate jean, Gap utility carpenter pants, Shein high waist flap pocket whip stitch cargo jeans (Photo: Urban Outfitters, Gap, Shein)" data-rich-caption="Left to right: Urban Outfitters low-rise seamed skate jean, Gap utility carpenter pants, Shein high waist flap pocket whip stitch cargo jeans (Photo: Urban Outfitters, Gap, Shein)" data-credit="Urban Outfitters, Gap, Shein" data-credit-link-back="" />
If you thought wide-fit, all-weather, surplus-pocket pants were only for under-showered middle school boys that like to mansplain “prog rock,” think again. Whether they be cargo, carpenter, painter or general utility, work pants are having a serious moment.
For Nate Stern, assistant designer at Perry Ellis, the resurrection of cargo pants runs deeper than what’s cool on TikTok. “The return of cargo and ‘work’ pants shows how consumers are gravitating towards more utilitarian and durable goods,” Stern told HuffPost. “We’re moving away from the minimalistic, sleek look of the 2010s.”
New York-based clothing designer Kohlman Harshbarger said the birth of Instagram in October 2010 created a sort of #ootd culture, where a hyper-fixation was placed on snagging things from “it” brands and jumping on ephemeral trends. He describes the resurgence of work gear as a “Normcore 2.0” where genderless, unpretentious, even standardized clothes reign supreme.
“Instead of that special piece [of which] there were only five, that’s only sold at that one shop — utility wear is something that you can get everywhere,” he said. “We’ve moved from, ‘My clothing is special, so now you know I’m special,’ to ‘I’m so special that I can just wear a white tee and carpenter pants.’”
However, just because workwear is functional, durable and often widely available doesn’t mean it’s not also trendy. Sure, cargo pants can hold your wallet, keys, phone, headphones and backup charging block. And the strong fabric means no untimely rips while you’re rushing to the subway or cleaning up after your dog. Yet, utility pants and their vintage-inspired cuts also look effortlessly cool. They’re roomy and breezy, but still structured. They’re rugged and refined at the same time. Basically, they’re a pant for every sort of occasion. The endless spring of pockets is just a bonus.
“I like vintage and unique clothes, but I also like to look clean, put together and kind of minimalist,” graphic designer Emma Hansson said. “Workwear fits that look.”
For musician TJ Stevenson, cargo pants and cargo-style joggers are a better-looking and more comfortable alternative to bootcut jeans or slim-cut sweats. “I look for like durability, I hate buying pants,” they say. “And the pockets are so useful.” Queer writer Gabrielle Kassel expressed the affirming value of workwear — especially cargo pants. “They make me feel like my dyke self,” she said. “Like the hot carpenter that Bette cheats on Tina within The L Word.”
Dana Savage, founder of pleasure company Tango, told HuffPost utility wear makes her feel powerful. “I always feel like I can move and breathe in work pants,” she said. “As someone who is femme but deeply invested in my strength, wearing clothes that can move with me to be strong feels amazing.”
Yet both Stern and Harshbarger describe the complexities that accompany the sudden stylization of workwear. “With this trend, there’s inherently been an appropriation of workwear, as blue-collar style seeps into mainstream fashion,” Stern said. “While extracting inspiration from the working class is nothing new, this has inherently blurred the hierarchy of elitist style. Don’t be surprised when you see fashion figures mixing Carhartt with Prada.”
Harshbarger added that while the rise of styles available at shops like Walmart or Bass Pro Shops makes for a sort of egalitarian era of fashion — where lower-income, working-class and rural folks can sport the same styles as big city influencers — it can create a sort of “cosplaying as poor” aesthetic, where the generally wealthy rip off the style of historically disenfranchised groups. “Workwear feels dissonant when dawned by rich artsy kids whose parents still pay their rent,” he said.
After seeing a flood of Dickies on my own Instagram, I asked my followers if, and why, they wore utility pants. Out of 310 respondents, 72% said that either they or their friends had recently gotten into workwear. When asked why they like these garments, the answered ranged from the practical (durable, comfortable, don’t show dirt, extra pockets, etc.) to affirming, (make me feel masculine, powerful, extra gay) to, of course, aesthetic. Some like the detailing and stitching. Some like how spacey, even boxy, they can look. Some like them just because they’re trendy.
When asked where they stood on the politics of cargo pants, the answers were just as varied. One called luxury brands selling workwear at high price points “sus.” Another said seeing middle-class office workers in Dickies was “annoying.” A handful of people from working-class backgrounds and/or who currently do manual labor noted they would (or frankly, could) never go out of their way to spend extra money on work pants for “style.” Another handful said they’d never thought about it, or that cargo pants are just pants.
My personal favorite response was from my friend Donny, a motorcycle mechanic and server. “The more Wrangler butts, the better,” he said. I can’t argue with that.
If you’re looking to snag some utility gear for yourself, we’ve rounded up some fun options below.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.