Working Class Culture Stolen and Redefined: Cargo Pants and the Gap

Theodora Carson

Issue 2 * Spring 2000

The fads of the father are visited on the son: we've all seen how adult fads are given down to children. We've seen how cargo pants have trickled down, thanks to the Gap, Baby Gap, and Old Navy (all corporations owned by The Limited, Inc.).

Cargo pants have always been a mystery to me. The attractive thing about them is storage (which I'll get to later), blandness and personal appearance. I only considered wearing cargo pants because they'd hide how chunky my thighs are. And they're beige and boring--they thus go with anything. I also don't understand this fascination with looking working-class (In a recent copy of Vogue, there were ritzy, high-priced versions of lumberjack clothing). There's absolutely nothing wrong with that and I don't want to sound like an elitist, because I'm by no means not working-class. I just wonder why this a trend, why white collar workers want to look like they work with their hands.

But this fascination with storage, with having so many products presents a problem. Cargo pants were designed so workers could essentially wear their toolbox. Today's kids wearing cargo pants don't need that space for hammers and nails. To avoid acknowledging that cargo pants are a silly trend, wearers unconsciously seek to fill their pockets. As Lacan might say, empty pockets remind us of our lacks.

Cargo pants only encourage the reckless. The Gap, like any other capitalist corporation, wants consumers to spend oodles of money. Providing more storage space in a pair of pants allows for children and teens to spend even more money filling them.

What the Gap has done is transformed the meaning of cargo pants. It is a redefinition: today's cargo pants wearers aren't laborers, they're spenders. Isn't that a glorious thing, the Gap may ask us. It's a way of showing how the upper class has always stepped all over the lower class, taking what aspects of its culture it likes and discarding the individuals involved.

We've seen this over and over, but it usually has been a race's culture that has been used while the individuals are considered meaningless by the ruling classes. This is happening again today with Latin culture. White culture takes what few things it likes (namely Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, maybe a salsa beat, and some Tex-Mex food), and celebrates it as all Latin culture has to offer, ignoring debates about the "Latinness" of such aspects anyway. Does this interest in Hispanic cultures mean that immigration laws are easier? No. Does this mean that individual Latinos and Latinas are treated any better? No. What does it mean? A chosen few people will profit off this craze before we're shoved another Americanized (read "pirated and abridged") culture to swallow.

The Gap has done its part by trying to get "everyone" in cargo pants, leather, and knits. The Gap wants to blur those lines of economic stratification on the surface, but it, of course, has no intention of leveling the playing field. It's "everyone in cargo pants," but those pants are priced out of quite a few individual's price range. The Gap doesn't care about equality-and, of course, no one expects them to. After all, their name (The Gap) shows clearly their interest in maintaining a division between social strata. But the Gap does care about skimming things from working class culture, like hunting jackets in safety orange and cargo pants.

Will the next Gap craze be hard hats? I wouldn't be surprised.