The Cargo Shorts scholar

Dave Ghose

They're ugly. They're practical. They're comfy. And they're worthy of academic research-or so says fashion historian Joseph Hancock, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on cargo pants and shorts at Ohio State in 2007. We recently talked to Hancock, now an associate professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, about the most controversial garment in many a man's wardrobe.

On the importance of cargo shorts: "What I'm interested in is, 'What do people use and wear every single day?' and 'Where does it come from?' … No one really knows where they come from, and that's the problem."

On how long he worked on the dissertation:Five years.

Factoid from his dissertation: Cargo pants originated in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a military utility garment.

More factoids: Connoisseurs include Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (who made his troops wear cargo pants during the Spanish Civil War), revolutionary Che Guevara (photographed wearing cargo pants while playing baseball), 1980s hunk Michael Schoeffling (Jake from "Sixteen Candles" wears cargo pants on the movie poster).

On solving the marital conflict between cargo-loving men and cargo-hating women (the subject of a recent viral Wall Street Journal article): "Cargo shorts have changed. I bought cargo shorts this summer, and I wore cargo shorts to my class last week. They're not the sloppy, baggy ones that men are wearing. They can be a happy compromise between men and women."

On the many uses of cargo shorts pockets: "One of my neighbors likes them because he can sneak candy and stuff into the movie theater so he doesn't have to pay high prices."