The joy of socks

One of the great unappreciated pleasures of life is socks.



One of the great unappreciated pleasures of life is socks.

A warm pair, a wild print, a whimsical image, deliberately mismatched (one polka dot and its partner striped), extra thick for winter, extra padded for running. Oh, the joy of socks.

Remember when socks were plain and annoying? They were too short. Women’s socks slipped down into our shoe heel and when men sat down, their shins showed beneath their pant legs. Dress socks were as uniform as Model Ts, all black with an occasional brown pair thrown in for the madcap and wildly fashionable.

Yet, the ubiquitous sock has a fascinating history. Our Stone Age ancestors likely wore animal skins tied around their ankles. Egyptians’ socks worn with sandals looked like the foot of a two-toed sloth. The Greeks’ animal hair socks were called piloi, and the Romans wrapped their feet in woven fabric or leather.

For a long time, stockings were handmade and a status symbol worn only by the wealthy. The invention of the knitting machine in the 16th century mass-produced wool socks for the masses and cotton or silk for the upper classes.

Men wore stockings, called hose, long before women did. By the 12th century, men’s hose were knee-length and tied with ribbons. Then vanity prevailed. Men in the era of Henry VIII liked to show off their shapely legs, and fashion followed suit. Short tunics and breeches came into fashion with mid-thigh stockings. Men of the Tudor period strutted like peacocks in colorful, embroidered or striped hose. When their hose became a one-piece garment that reached the crotch, much like today’s pantyhose or tights, men quickly learned the discomfort of that fashion, and by the late 15th century hose were back to two pieces.

In the early 1700s, Peter the Great’s modernized Russia included the dictate that all men, except clergy and peasant farmers, wear ankle-length trousers. During the 1789 French Revolution, men’s knee breeches, culottes, gave way to ankle-length trousers.

The admiration for men’s legs continued, and by 1800 the fashion was a short waistcoat and tight trousers to make the legs look longer and sexier. This followed the historic trend of using clothing to emphasize male prowess — broad shoulders, big chest and strong legs.  Often the pants were skintight, light colored — sometimes made of soft doeskin — and worn with tall, shiny black boots. Think-oh-think of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Once they found this style, men have stuck to it. They have worn long pants since about 1820. As the style for men’s pants lengthened, not only did their stockings get shorter, so did the word. “Stockings” became “socks.” Sadly, all this fuss and bother about men’s legs pushed socks out of view. For decades socks languished invisible and unacknowledged.

As for women’s hosiery, Elizabeth I popularized stockings for women about 1560 when she received a gift of a pair of knee-length, silk stockings. She liked brightly colored stockings that flashed when she danced. By the 17th century, cotton was the popular choice for stockings. It was 1938 before nylon was invented and used for socks. World War II had two effects on women’s stockings: Silk from Japan was unavailable, and nylon was commandeered for war materials. American women adopted a “make-do” attitude and drew seams down the back of their legs to imitate hose. This worked until they crossed their legs and the faux seams smeared.

Nothing much changed until 1959 when pantyhose burst into fashion. In her memoir, Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, writes how thrilled she was to discover American pantyhose when she attended the inauguration of John Kennedy in cold January 1961.

Now, socks are back. Flashier than ever, for women and men. “Socks are the new neckties,” said Atlantic magazine. They’re called “statement socks.” They are an affordable status symbol, although some pairs sell for almost $200.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote many, many poems about love. He wrote only one poem about socks. “Ode to My Socks” ends this way:

“Beauty is twice beauty and what is good is doubly good

When it is a matter of two socks made of wool in winter.”

 

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March 2019

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