The History of Socks–(and Everything Else a Gentleman Should Know About Them)


History of Socks

Prehistoric man, in an attempt to keep his feet warm, would tie animal skins around his ankles. And the ancient Greeks and Romans would use matted animal hair or wrap woven fabric around their feet to protect them and keep them warm. These early leg treatments are the forerunners of the modern “sock,” a word which derives from the Latin “soccus,” meaning ”light shoe.”  There is even ancient precedent for the much-maligned Scandinavian and hip-hop penchant for wearing socks with sandals:  The earliest surviving pair of socks, excavated in Egypt and dating from around the 5th century C.E., features a split-toe design, presumably crafted to be worn with thong-style sandals.  By 1000 C.E., socks had become a symbol of the privileged classes, worn primarily by the nobility, members of wealthy merchant families, and the clergy. The earliest surviving sock in the style of present-day socks was also uncovered in Egypt and dates from the 12th century C.E.

One of the greatest advancements for sock-production occurred in 1589 when Englishman William Lee invented the knitting machine. The machine could produce socks six times as fast as hand-knitting. For hundreds of years, socks were made from the four great natural fibers:  cotton, wool, linen, and silk. Then in 1938, in an attempt to achieve a man-made silk, DuPont invented nylon, which quickly became a primary material in sock-production. Today, many socks are made of combinations of the natural fibers along with man-made fibers such as nylon, acrylic, polyester, and spandex. It is not uncommon for a pair of “cotton” socks today to be comprised of 80% cotton, 10% nylon, 5% spandex, 3% polyester, and 2% rubber, for example. The general rule is:  The higher the percentage of natural fiber vis a vis synthetic fiber, the higher the quality of the sock.

The Primary Purposes of Socks

Socks were created primarily to protect the feet from the elements; to protect the delicate skin of the foot from the inside of the shoe; to protect the inside of the shoe from the perspiration of the foot; to ensure masculine modesty by providing coverage of the foot and lower leg (when wearing shorts or when a portion of the leg is exposed when sitting in full-length trousers, for example); and for making a fashion statement—whether emphatically or understatedly.

 Matching Socks with Trousers and Shoes

Men’s socks come primarily in three lengths:  knee-high, for formal and professional wear or (in black or navy-blue) with traditional Bermuda shorts; mid-calf, for leisure and casual wear; and “bare socks” (also called “loafer socks” or “no-shows”), which cover only the foot and are fully concealed even when wearing low-cut shoes, thereby providing the illusion of the wearer going “nonchalantly and fashionably sockless.”

Traditionally—at least since the 19th century—the visual transition from shoes to socks to pants should be a seamless one.  A lawyer or a banker, for example, would want his socks to be as understated as possible. For conservative-types, ties, more so than socks, are the fashion item most often used for individual expression. Gentlemen in artistic professions, however—men such as fashion designers, painters, writers, and actors—have long been known to use socks to shock. It is not uncommon in a city such as New York to see a gentleman in a sleek, black suit, with black-framed glasses, carrying a black leather portfolio, dashing off to work on Madison Avenue, wearing a pair of neon-yellow socks.

But the general rule is that a gentleman’s socks should match his shoes and/or his trousers. And matching socks to shoes is generally the more practical of the two options since most men have shoes in two basic colors:  black and brown.  Matching socks to trousers, on the other hand, would typically necessitate investing in many pairs of socks of different colors:  olive drab socks for olive drab trousers; gray socks for gray flannel slacks; and khaki-colored socks for khaki pants, for example. And since the new outlook on men’s fashion is a decidedly conservative one, encouraging the modern man to own as few items of clothing as possible, wearing each item as often as possible, matching socks to shoes as opposed to trousers is the more efficient approach.  But the nature of fashion is that it cannot always be practical; it must also appeal to the aesthetic, and it must also allow for personal style. A fashionable gentleman wearing a pair of slim-fitting, pegged, above-the-ankle-length trousers would wear socks of a contrasting color so as to underscore the styling of the trousers.


Socks should be treated as underwear and should only be worn once before being placed into the laundry. A gentleman’s feet, even in the cool months, perspire. And socks absorb that perspiration. Consequently, fresh socks should be worn each day.

Maintaining a pair of socks is like maintaining two lovers:  If a man is not mindful, at least one will take leave of him.  A gentleman who uses public laundry facilities should be especially mindful to account for his socks at each phase of the laundering process. Socks tend to adhere to the inside bins of washing machines and automatic dryers, so special attention should be taken to assure that pairs are all accounted for prior to leaving the laundry facility.

And finally, a modern gentleman should not embrace the age-old practice of maintaining a special drawer just for single socks (apparently with the hope that the rogue socks will miraculously reappear). Once a pair of socks has been separated, it is best to discard the remaining sock or use it for some pedestrian—but important—task such as polishing shoes or brass.


One thought on “The History of Socks–(and Everything Else a Gentleman Should Know About Them)

  1. Antonymous says:

    I know these are etiquette guidelines, not meant to discourage stylish uniqueness or thinking and dressing outside the box if you have enough artistic taste.
    Matching socks with shoes is great as I love the continuity, if I wear a blue suit I’m wearing brown leather shoes and slightly darker brows socks, many people just wear black even in this case. It looks fine the black socks, but I agree that brown comes just more harmonic with blue. Black is the safest and plainer, so it looks ok ;).
    Matching pants can be more daring, it would be awesome to pair a dark blue pair of socks with blue pants :D.
    When I feel like breaking the rules while staying coordinated, I match the dress shirt.

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