Guide to pants – BDU combat pants

bdu combat pantsYou’ve seen these pants before. You’ve seen them worn in movies, you’ve seen them worn on TV, and you might have seen them worn by soldiers or by law enforcement. They are BDU pants: the style of pants from the U.S. military’s Battle Dress Uniform. “Battle Dress” refers to the outfits that soldiers actually wear into combat, as opposed to parade ground or ceremonial uniforms.

Members of the military are discouraged from using their uniforms for fashion, but we aren’t in the military, so we don’t have those restrictions! We enjoy using BDU pants for creative purposes.

Military pants with cargo pockets are an excellent balance of style and functionality with heavy use in dark alternative fashion. So far, our series on pants has explored khaki pants and jeans. In this post, we will explore BDU pants.


eisenhower talks to paratroopers in cargo pants

Eisenhower addresses paratroopers wearing cargo pants on D-day in WWII

Military pants with leg pockets saw their first major use in World War II. They evolved through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, up to the modern day.

cops wearing bdus

Cops wearing BDUs during a protest in SF. Photo: D.C. Atty on Flickr.

The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) is the name of the style of uniform worn by the U.S. military from 1981-2005. The military moved on to the Army Combat Uniform (ACU), but the Battle Dress Uniform is still used by police forces, SWAT, and non-U.S. Forces worldwide. BDUs are iconic due to their decades of history in the military, law enforcement, and media.

Like BDU pants, consumer cargo pants are also descended from WWII paratrooper pants. Cargo pants tend to look less military than BDUs, because they have a different cut. BDUs are high-waisted, and wide at the thighs to allow freedom of movement. They get narrower towards the knee and they have drawstrings to tighten the ankles, in order to tuck them into boots. This combination of features creates a distinctive silhouette that says “soldier.” In contrast, consumer cargo pants tend to be more straight-legged and they are not designed to be tucked into boots.


BDU pants are common in popular culture. They are a staple of action movie characters, and they appear on many military forces in video games.

the expendables wearing bdu pants

Several members of The Expendables wear BDU pants, or tactical pants with a similar design.

Due to their associations with the military, war, death, and law enforcement, BDUs send a powerful message. They convey a powerful and authoritative presence, but some people may find them intimidating or threatening. BDU pants are enjoyed in industrial, punk, and other alternative subcultures, but they are outside the realm of what men wear in the mainstream.


BDU pants are an excellent choice when you want to look military, when you want to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, or when you just need a lot of pockets. They can be used to evoke a soldier, guerrilla fighter, counter-terrorist, commando, or cop. Black BDUs especially are common for industrial fashion, cyber fashion, and futuristic military fashion.

bdu pants used in outfits

BDU pants can be used in a variety of outfits

Unlike jeans, you can’t just stick BDU pants into any outfit. You need to build an entire outfit around them so that they make sense, drawing on media or subcultural associations.

Be mindful of where you wear BDUs, because some people perceive them negatively. People who don’t understand the use of BDUs in fashion might perceive them as threatening or weird. Be careful about wearing too much military stuff with scruffy hair and beard, or people might think you are part of some strange paramilitary organization.

black, urban, and woodland bdus

BDU pants come in multiple styles

BDUs come in various colors and camo patterns. Black is generally best for commando or futuristic looks, but camo patterns are more soldier-like, since real soldiers are more likely to wear some type of camouflage rather than black.

dexter wearing cargo pants

Dexter wearing olive cargo pants

BDUs are generally worn tucked into boots. If you don’t want to wear BDUs with boots, but you like cargo pockets, then look into consumer cargo pants with styling similar to BDU, such as the olive ones that Dexter wears.

If you want a bit of military flair in your outfit, but you don’t want to step completely outside mainstream fashion by fully committing to BDUs, then another option is tactical pants like these. Police supply stores or security supply companies offer tactical pants, which will have pockets and durable construction similar to BDUs, but which are usually designed with straighter legs instead of with the tapered legs and ankle drawstrings of BDUs. Tactical pants offer the durability of BDUs without being quite so imposing, and without requiring you to wear boots.

bdu pants vs emt pants

EMT pants, the cousin of BDU pants

If you need an even more excessive number of pockets, then try EMT pants (the pants that emergency medical technicians wear). EMT pants have two cargo pockets on each leg instead of one, for a total of 8 pockets. I love EMT pants for carrying photography gear.


You can probably find BDUs at a local military surplus, police supply, or security supply store for around $35. Online you can often find them for less, and in a variety of camo patterns and colors. Here are a couple product links:

Ultra Force Black BDU Pants

Tru-Spec BDU Pants



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