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What to Wear with Cargo Shorts?

Learn how to choose the right length of cargo shorts and the leg cut that can maximize your body assets. You can style these casual shorts to take you through spring and summer to stylishly see you through to fall.

A shirtless man wearing cargo shorts and sandals on a mountain top.

It’s spring and you stand in front of your open closet door thinking, “What am I gonna wear?” Okay, if you’re most guys, you probably picked up a pair of shorts from the closet floor and need to find something to wear on top. If you’re most women, you have a painstakingly organized closet with so many items that you wonder how to pick what to wear.

If you belong in that third category of men and women who instantly know what to wear and when to wear it, skip to the FAQ to skim and see if this answers any burning questions you have.

A Quick Intro to Cargo Shorts

For those who may not love fashion and just think of it as clothes, let’s clarify a few quick things. First, cargo shorts and utility shorts refer to the same thing. Men’s fashions tend to use the phrase utility shorts more often than cargo shorts. Women’s wear uses the later phrase.

They differ slightly depending on whether they’re designed for men or women. Men’s cargo shorts come in four lengths – three, five, seven, and nine-inch inseams. Women’s shorts come in five lengths – one, three, five, seven, and nine-inch inseams.

Although there are many different types of women’s and men’s shorts, we’ll stick with just cargo shorts. Most cargo shorts are made of cotton fabric. 90 percent of all shorts are made of cotton, but many other fabrics also offer you choice. Consider twill weaves, chambray, polyester, nylon, modal, and bamboo. Let’s move on to how to style cargo shorts. In the modern way, the fellas get to go first.

Styling Men’s Cargo Shorts

This is a man wearing a khaki cargo shorts with a salmon polo shirt while riding a scooter.

In the 1890s, only little boys wore shorts, but today, adults love these shorten inseam fashion staples. Cargo shorts provide one of the favored choices of most people. Once spring and summer come around, everyone throws on their shorts. Guys, you may want a few new ways to wear your cargo shorts.

When to Wear Cargo Shorts

You can wear this casual garment in any casual or leisure situation. Cargo shorts do not form the bottom half of any business suits. You should not wear cargo shorts to any business or formal occasion. Cargo shorts make ideal attire for summer special event functions such as bar-be-ques, trips to the beach, pool parties, and outdoor sports such as running and hiking.

When Not to Wear Cargo Shorts

A few casual workplaces let you wear shorts. Most workplaces do not. The few that do are typically located in the US. In other parts of the world this is not common. When you join a new group or get hired by a new company, if they do not provide a dress code, ask. You can try to judge by looking around but asking works best since you won’t end up in trouble for violating dress code. Avoid wearing shorts for any event requiring business or formal attire.

Cargo Shorts and Body Types

Three different men wearing three different cargo shorts.

Although cargo shorts provide a baggy fit, you still need them to fit properly. Each body type needs a different length or cut of these shorts and one body type should simply avoid traditional cargo shorts.

If you have an athletic build: Your broad shoulders and smaller waist let you have the greatest range of choices in shorts styles. You should avoid loose shorts because they will make you look disproportional. Instead, choose a tailored fit without too baggy or too tight of legs. A bulky, athletic build, such as a linebacker, can balance out the perception of their body by choosing lighter colored shorts. Try khaki or tan. White shorts work well, too.

If you have a slim build: Slim-fit shorts work best on a man with a slim body. Like the athletically built guys, you need to avoid baggy shorts. They will cause your legs and torso to appear disproportionate. Avoid flared shorts because the excess material around your legs will make it seem as if you’re wearing a skirt. You should wear straight let shorts for the best results.

If you carry a little extra weight: When you have gained weight at your midsection, avoid slim-fit shorts because they will emphasize your stomach and pleated shorts because they create lines leading to your waist. You are the guy for whom those wide leg shorts were made. You can also choose straight-legged shorts.

The cut of these shorts brings the focus to your waist. Also, avoid elastic waistbands because they will pinch your waist and cause a muffin top. Never wear shorts longer than your knees such as board shorts or longer cargo styles because you will cause your legs to look smaller but your stomach to appear larger.

Optimum Length of Cargo Shorts for Men

A man wearing a pair of camouflage pattern cargo shorts.

Back to those four typical lengths. The ideal length of shorts varies depending on your height and the length of your legs. Your shorts should cover one-third of your leg length as a rule. A man of average height should wear a pair of shorts with a seven-inch inseam. Your choice of shorts depends on the situation, too.

You can find cargo short swimming trunks, and these will be three or five inches in length. For cargo shorts of the typical style, you can choose from seven- or nine-inch lengths. If you will wear a polo, solid color or white T-shirt, or button-down shirt with cargo shorts, choose a length of shorts that hits two to three inches above the knee.

Guys of heights 5’7″ or shorter should choose a shorter inseam short. That’s because a 7-inch inseam would drop to beneath the knee on a man of 5’2″ or shorter. That length makes the man’s legs look short. Opt for cargo shorts with a five-inch inseam if you must and go for a three-inch inseam on swimming shorts. What’s that “if you must”? Shorter guys should simply avoid wearing cargo shorts because the large side cargo pocket dwarf the man’s small frame.

Tall guys have special considerations, too. If your height reaches 6’1″ or taller, you need to avoid showing too much leg. You can opt for the nine-inch length or the seven-inch length and look good pairing the cargo shorts with a short-sleeved button-down shirt or a polo shirt. Choose loafers for your shoes. With respect to swim trunks, choose a five-inch length.

Styling Women’s Cargo Shorts

A woman wearing a pair of khaki cargo shorts with a green shirt and boots.

Women have a greater diversity of accessory options and more shoes that work well with cargo shorts. Like the guys, they should save these casual shorts for casual situations.

When to Wear Cargo Shorts

Women can wear shorts in any casual situation. You should not wear them to work though, unless your employer has a specific policy allowing this. Also, avoid wearing these short pants for dressy or formal occasions.

When Not to Wear Cargo Shorts

You might think that you can wear shorts to any event where you would wear a dress, but that is not the case. Although both show your legs, shorts are perceived as much more casual than a skirt. If you definitely want to wear shorts, choose a skort, so it will appear to everyone that you wore a skirt. You can pair these shorts with espadrilles, sneakers, or boat shoes.

Cargo Shorts and Body Types

With respect to body shape, the same rules apply to women as to the guys. We describe our body shapes a little differently, but a rectangle would qualify as a slim or athletic build, while an inverted triangle clearly has the broader shoulders of the athletic build. Our options for carrying extra weight get described as the rounder apple or the pear which carries it weight in the hips and buttocks and upper legs. The hourglass figure can be athletic, but these women have ample breasts and buttocks, too, however in proportion.

Optimum Length of Cargo Shorts for Women

This is a close look at a woman wearing a pair of green cargo shorts.

Only the rectangles with thin thighs should ever consider the one-inch inseam. If you want to hide thicker thighs, choose a longer length inseam such as seven inches. You can go as high as a five-inch inseam with cargo shorts, if you feel comfortable. The same length rules apply to women as men when it comes to height. Of course, not many women reach the height of 6’1″, but many taller women have longer legs and therefore inseams with a shorter torso. If you are 5′ 10″ or taller, consider the tall guys rules as applying to you.

A Little Something for Everyone

Keep in mind that the many bulky pockets on a pair of cargo pants will add bulk. You might choose a utility short that reduces the number of slash pockets or cellphone pockets if you have heavy legs.

Women with a pear shape can create the perception of a slimmer bottom by choosing cargo shorts in a dark color like black or navy blue. If you feel uncomfortable showing off your legs, opt for a capri length of cargo shorts for women or guys can go with a board shorts length.

Match your shoes to your top or your shorts. Forgo socks with your shoes or wear no-show socks.

If you want another option beyond denim shorts, khaki shorts, chino shorts, and athletic shorts, try the longer shorts look of cargo shorts. You even get an extra pocket for your smartphone or lipstick.


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