The humble sock, the everyday item that can be found -often in abundance- in any wardrobe, and which used to make for a very uninspired part of one’s outfit, is having a revival.
We say socks are the mark of a man. But how did we get here? Let’s uncover the many secrets of the most talked-about and prominent item in every discerning gentleman’s wardrobe: the colourful socks.
Socks may appear a relatively small and inconspicuous item of clothing, but for their humility, they do punch highly above their weight.
The hosiery garments have gone through much evolution since they were first invented. Primarily a protective and functional item, the sock, from the latin word ‘soccus’, translate as a light shoe or slipper, often with a small heel as worn by theatre actors.
When purchasing a pair of socks, comfort and durability should always preside in the decision-making process. But no longer are socks perceived as a mere utilitarian item; style has become an essential part to its recent revival. And with such an array of colours and patterns now available, there are no more excuses to wear socks that are unsightly, holed or -dare I add- white.
Whether you are the city-type who likes to don a suit at every occasion or prefer sporting chinos or jeans, whether you are the conventional type or like to stand out just a touch more, socks have become a considered purchase and are the easiest way to inject a little personality and colour into your outfits.
“Socks abide by the law of visual scarcity: they are so infrequently the focus of an outfit by virtue of placement (near the ground, far from the eyes), so typically neutral (black, sometimes navy), and so buried beneath outerwear (only a sliver round the ankles exposed) that seeing any flair at all is a thrill.”- Kenzy Bryant, Vanity Fair
Socks can help elevate one’s game as well as their mood. In a sea of black, grey and dark blue suits, adding a pinch of colour in your footwear will perk up any outfit and make the wearer feel confident.
Taking care in selecting the right socks for the right occasion is testimony to your attention to details and reflects positively on you as a person. The revival of socks symbolises a greater shift in attitude whereby men take pride in their appearance and where details not only matter but are paramount. Socks are a way to portray confidence in a subtle way - they are eye-catching enough to make a statement but not too brash to be a style faux-pas.
Wanting to look stylish as well as be comfortable is not purely for show to the outside world. The discerning man likes his comfort at home too, as demonstrated by the recent prominence of loungewear. Socks have thus gradually become an essential part of one’s attire, even at home. Recent years have seen a surge in everyday essentials, such as socks and underwear, traditionally purchased as an after-thought, being revisited and redesigned. Fabrics and fits are being updated to suit the modern gentleman and his quest for individuality.
"Nowadays, men are looking for quality in things you can and can't see. It's about how they feel personally."- Paul Birardi, Odin
When looking to convey a little rebellious spirit, socks might just be the perfect way to make a statement. The Red Sneaker Effect report indeed states that non-conformity in dress acts as a way to assert power, status and self-assurance*.
This, the report states, is linked to our level of self-confidence. The lesser confident we feel, the more we try to blend in, and in the opposite, the greater our confidence level, the more we experiment with given codes of conduct, not minding any critical reactions and judgements that might arise as a result. In the end, whose opinion of your sartorial endeavours matters more than our very own anyway?
*[We ought to bear in mind though that the report dates from 2014 already and within that short space of time, much has changed in the menswear scene and more rules than ever before have been broken and genres mixed. The dress code has become more casual as a whole and the greater choice of garments available makes it easier to go bold and extreme.]
Socks also remain one of the most cost-effective way to update a wardrobe each season all the while injecting a little personality into outfits.
“There has been a down turn in the ‘formal accessory’ category, which is reflected by the shift towards a more casual work outfit across most sectors. Accessories are the perfect way to mix up and completely change a look without having to invest in lots of new clothing.”- Alexander Hudson, Banvard & James
Whilst novelty socks may not be your thing (best to leave that to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), you can quite easily use colour and texture to make a statement.
But beware, there are a few basic rules to bear in mind when it comes to socks:
“It is permissible to wear socks of entirely different colour from the rest of the costume, provided the rest of the costume is of one series of colours. The matching of socks to the tie do I find affected.”- Sir Hardy Amies, ABC of Men’s Fashion
“All sock, particularly woollen, look well when finely ribbed. The ribs make the ankles look slim and help with the fit as they make the sock cling to the leg.”- Hardy Amies, ABC of Men’s Fashion
In a sea of grey corporate suits, any dash of colour will make you stand out. But, make sure to do so for the right reasons. Nobody likes a show-off, and neither do your peers or your future employer. Your outfit as a whole should look like it’s been put together well, aspiring for an effortless, borderline nonchalant look. Work it too hard and it’ll become noticeable and you’ll stand out like a sore thumb.
Start with a well-tailored suit or trousers and shirt; focus on quality, timeless pieces that will work with a variety of colours and textures. Understand it to be your blank canvas and use colourful accessories to showcase your personality. Whether you go for striking pink or a more subdued dark green may give a subliminal message on your personality and creativity, but even more essential than style, you, as the wearer, should own your outfit and feel confident in it.
Antiquity and late antiquity
Early records of garments resembling woollen socks date back to Egyptian Pharaoh: socks were recovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb when it was discovered and opened in 1922. Animal skins and piece of fabrics sewn together have also been known to be tied on ankles for warmth during the Roman Empire.
Early modern Europe and the Industrial Revolution
Socks remained a basic and utilitarian item for many centuries, until the 17th century, when noblemen started to dress with ostentatious, baroque outfits that fell above the knee, requiring stockings and leggings to keep their legs warm.
At that time, men developed a great pride in their attire as it was very much a way to showcase their wealth and authority.
By the 15th century, French and Italian aristocrats wore stockings made out of fine silk allowing for a greater mobility of their legs, and the thinner material showed off their shapely limbs also. This wave soon arrived to Britain, which quickly started importing the fancy fabric from Europe.
Under her reign, in an attempt to maintain and segregate privileges, Queen Elizabeth I infamously enforced many a sumptuary law which dictated what was allowed to be worn accordingly to one’s social rank: purple silk for instance was strictly reserved to the Queen, the King and their family members; other fabrics and cloths such as enamelled buttons, silk or velvet were restricted to the highest grades of noblemen and dukes. In 1566, the City of London's ‘sock police’ was looking for such improper hosiery at the gates of the city. Not abiding by these laws could result not only in fines for the wearer, but also a potential imprisonment for the tailor responsible for the garments, as well as public embarrassment.
Since stockings were seen as a sign of nobility, their manufacturing was kept a guild secret for many years. They only started to be democratised in 1589, with the invention of the knitting loom by English Reverend William Lee. This grand invention revolutionised the way stockings were being made, which became cheaper and easier to produce as a result.
"Socks are actually one of the most (if not the most) complex item of clothing to create well. They are knitted in a circular method, knit by knit, row by row. This is a challenge when you want to create interesting designs, without compromising on quality."- London Sock Company
By the late 17th century, the puffy breeches men wore as trousers became out of fashion and were replaced by longer trousers - much like the ones we wear nowadays. Hosiery adapted and grew shorter as a result. It is only then that the term ‘socks’ came into use.
“Socks basically came in two categories: luxury, and utilitarian. In the 18th century, the luxury sock would have been made from imported silk, or the fine fibres of long-wool sheep, by a male frame knitter in London or one of the growing towns and cities of the Midlands. The utilitarian sock, meanwhile, would have been hand-knit by a poor woman in a rural village, from the much coarser wool of the sheep of Westmorland, Wales, or Scotland.”- Kate Davies Designs
Socks were without doubt used by the elite to make a statement about their standing - highlighting the societal disparities of the time.
In the beginning of the 19th century, greater mechanisation of the sock-making process allowed for a greater choice of colours, patterns as well as a cheaper cost of manufacturing - helping to broaden its reach once more.
The Twentieth Century
The early twentieth century saw the popularisation of socks in cashmere, cotton lisle and silk, instead of the traditional wool which most had been produced from until then. This cheaper production method helped to kick off the rise of the sock as a statement accessory in the decades that followed.
“Most of our products are made with a type of material called Scottish Lisle Cotton, also known as Mercerised Cotton. The technique behind it dates back to Victorian times. [...] It essentially cleanses and defrays the cotton yarn, meaning you get a much cleaner, stronger thread, which is more durable and makes the colour really vibrant. Whilst more expensive, this is one of the key reasons our socks will last significantly longer than more traditional cotton materials.”- London Sock Company
In the 1920s, the Duke of Windsor, British monarch who, one could say, rather liked to rebel against the institution and preferred to indulge in what he liked, soon became quite the influencer of the time amongst the upper and middle classes for starting a movement to wear socks with argyle patterns.
It was the form then to wear long socks with plus-fours (knee-length baggy trousers). To the Duke of Windsor, socks were directly a representation of his individuality: “My favourite sport became golf” he said "and here I found more scope for indulging my freedom of taste in dress” (VintageDancer).
This had a tremendous impact on the number of patterns - such as diamonds, stripes and checks - and colours - camel, sand, brown, navy blue - available, which grew substantially.
By the 1930s, it had become quite normal for weavers of suits and city workers to wear very bright coloured dress socks (think red, purple and bright blue), with their otherwise grey uniform.
The rationing of resources in the war years saw wool being replaced by cotton which had become more widely available and synthetic fibres such as nylon, reducing once again the cost of manufacturing.
The mid century’s somber societal mood saw socks become utilitarian once more and the bright colours were replaced by dark tones.
In the decades after the WWII, colourful socks were often regarded as a symbol of deviation and in the case of bright yellow socks, homosexuality. The ensuing subcultures such as the British Mods and the Skinheads gave a greater role to socks. These were visible and formed an integral part of the tribe outfit - even though they did primarily remain white.
Colourful socks only really appeared in 1960s with the Peacock Revolution when colour (and a little flamboyance too) become key to men’s ensemble, followed by the trend for rolled-up jeans in the 1980s which gave new breath to footwear as well. The likes of forward-thinking Hardy Amies and John Weitz readily embraced this change, and with men’s magazine GQ peeking an interest at them too, this was the start of the sock revolution as we know it.
With Pantone launching ‘Color of the Year’ started in 2000, perhaps in an odd way it has legitimised the use of colour into all areas of our lives and outfits - be it True Red (2002), Emerald (2013) or Ultra Violet (2018). Indeed the later colour has been demonised in a few years ago by Country Life who stated that no gentleman should ever be seen wearing lilac socks (Country Life). The magazine has seen retracted its 2015 remark, noting that in actual fact, each colour will have an impact on how others perceive you.
In recent years, as men become more style-conscious, we have witnessed a backlash and greater demand for high quality, mercerised socks. A flash of colour on the ankle is becoming more widespread.
"There has recently been a sock revolution where one is positively encouraged to wear with one’s suit and especially with one’s elegant casual outfits, imaginative chaussettes. Witty even – although one does not countenance that horrible word, ‘novelty’ items. Novelty has nothing new about it.”- Robin Dutt, Savile Row
White sporty socks may be back in trend (GQ), but whilst they may be an option for more casual looks with chinos, for many amongst us not wishing to mix sportswear with a more formal look, they may still be inappropriate or look like a fashion faux-pas.
Just like white socks still have a sigma attached to them, we believe the prevalence of plain black socks should be denounced. No longer do discerning men need to choose between shades of black and grey. Embrace your sartorial coming-of-age and go the whole way to colourful socks.
Here are a few recommended reads:
The Art of Manliness: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/guide-to-socks/
The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring status and competence from signals of nonconformity. Journal of Consumer Research (2014), Available online here.
Country Life - What socks say about you: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/luxury/style/what-your-socks-say-about-you-171863
The Gentlemanual - Guide to men's Socks: https://www.ties.com/blog/kicking-up-your-sock-game-a-guide-to-mens-sock-fashion
Psychological Science - Dressing For Success: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/dressing-for-success-from-lucky-socks-to-the-red-sneaker-effect.html
Read “The Story of Men's Underwear" by Shaun Cole, Parkstone Press Ltd, 2009.
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