…A Short History of Hosiery
They are inexpensive, gender neutral, almost completely concealed by leg coverings and footwear and worn over an inconspicuous part of the body. Socks would seem to be a humble sartorial staple. But we shouldn’t be fooled, for they are one of the clearest communicators in the language of dress. Brightly coloured or boldly patterned, holed or threadbare, incorrectly paired or garishly white, few items of apparel attract as much attention, and opprobrium, as a pair socks. Last year, Mark Ronson’s decision to wear chilli-red socks with his dinner jacket, and so flout the cardinal rule of Black Tie (that it must be black, of course!), sparked debate on GQ’s website.[i] In 2007, Paul Wolfowitz was taken to task for wearing holed socks on an official visit to a Turkish mosque.[ii] The irony, and humour, of the World Bank President wearing threadbare hosiery was acute because of the long-standing use of The Holed Sock as a metaphor for poverty and limited social means. More recently, men’s decision to shun socks and flash their ankle flesh, à la Thom Browne, has provoked a spirited discussion about when and where socks should be worn. The heat of the discussion has increased in direct proportion with the summer’s rising temperatures, as some people (almost invariably men) stubbornly persist in wearing (white) socks with sandals.[iii] Socks are clamorous communicators. Their history deserves to be told.
In The Beginning
If there is still a conundrum about the initial appearance of the chicken and the egg, there is no such quandary concerning the sock. Jesus has an eponymous sandal, but the wearing of socks predated his birth by several centuries. The oldest surviving pair of socks comes from Egypt and dates from between 250 and 450AD.[iv] Greek citizens, however, had worn rudimentary foot coverings since the eighth century BC. In its present form, the sock is a relatively new item of clothing. The material of many modern socks, cotton and nylon, did not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth century, respectively. The task of producing socks was facilitated by developments at the end of the sixteenth century; chiefly, the opening of knitting schools at York (1588) and Lincoln (1591) and, perhaps more importantly, the invention of the knitting machine in 1589. Unfortunately, the initial reception of this novel machine was rather poor. According to one story, Queen Elizabeth I refused to acknowledge William Lee’s labour-saving device with a royal patent because she did not like the stockings it produced; she favoured softer silk variants that were imported from Spain.[v] Another story suggests the monarch was less concerned for her own comfort than the economic prosperity of her kingdom; she refused Lee a patent because too many of her subjects would become unemployed if the knitting machine were to be widely used.[vi]
Style quandaries and economic concerns aside, Queen Elizabeth’s reluctance should not have been surprising. In the sixteenth century, sartorial decorum still required women to hide their stocking-covered legs and feet beneath the folds of their skirt. Men’s legs and feet were on show, as they had been since the late medieval period, but they were clothed in hose, a tight-like garment that was fastened to the doublet.[vii] Prior to the creation of trousers in the nineteenth century, there was no particular need, or demand, to change the way that men and women dressed their feet. Not until the widespread adoption of trousers (c.1820s, but initially by men alone), and the abandonment of the doublet and hose, was there a need for a shorter garment to cover the ankle and foot. The result, a creation of Thomas Kelly and Hugh Ryan, is commonly termed the ‘tube sock.’ Kelly and Ryan’s design was modified, with ribs being added in the 1840s to help the socks stay up, but the modern sock has remained much the same ever since.[viii]
If socks came of age during the nineteenth century, they probably found their voice in the late twentieth century. One catalyst for this change was the internecine conflict that engulfed Europe and much of the world between 1803 and 1945. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, mechanised warfare was a dream of the future and joining the cavalry was still frequently a perk of birth. Protecting the feet of the common solider, the infantryman, was therefore of vital importance. But whilst shoemaking technology advanced considerably over this period, the fact is that many soldiers who fought in the trenches during WWI did so in boots that were ill-fitting and poorly considered.[ix] Socks provided much needed, if still minimal, comfort.
It is unclear – at least to me – whether there is a direct correlation between the mass production of socks during the World War and their increased supply after it, but the first style of patterned socks to become widely popular was the argyle. This design, which will always be associated with the inimitable Duke of Windsor, was developed by Pringle in the 1920s. Argyle socks seem to mark something of a sartorial turning point for socks because whilst they were still worn for protection and comfort, they had, like the patterned and beribboned stockings of old, now become a conversant piece of people’s daily wear. Early sock designs seem to have conjured associations with aristocratic leisure pursuits, which is not surprising as many fashions descend from the society’s elite, but it was the Punks and New Romantics of the 1970s and 1980s, who experimented with bright colours and bold patterns, combined with the increasing popularity of continental sportswear brands, that contributed most to the sock’s colourful, striped, spotty and cartoon character adorned future.
The relatively inconspicuous nature of socks means that they provide a suitably enticing canvas for people to express their personalities. Moreover, unlike other items of male clothing that are increasingly challenged for injecting too much individuality into an outfit – the tie is a particularly good example considering its conspicuous absence at June’s G8 summit[x] – the sock has lasted, and probably will continue to do so, because its practicality cannot be doubted, unless you are a devotee of Thom Browne. The fact that personal expression in (men’s) dress is now largely confined to the feet reveals much about contemporary clothing attitudes, but as the examples of Mark Ronson and Paul Wolfowitz reveal, this makes the sock’s sartorial shout all the louder for it.
[i] N. Carvell, ‘Style Debate: Should Black Tie Socks Be Black?’ (November, 2012). www.gq-magazine.co.uk/style/articles/2012-11/22/black-tie-tuxedo-colourful-socks-style-debate. Accessed: 26-iv-2013.
[iii] T. Van Den Broeke, ‘Summer Survival Guide #1: The Rules of Going Sockless’. www.esquire.co.uk/style/shoes/4050/rules-of-going-sockless. Accessed: 8-ix-2013.
[iv] http://www.richmondsocks.com/blogs/news/7266828-ancient-socks. Accessed: 4-viij-2013; ‘Pair of socks’, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O107787/pair-of-socks-unknown/. Accessed: 4-viij-2013.
[vi] T. Gunn, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet (New York, 2012),185.
[vii] M. Hayward, ‘Hose’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 280-81.
[viii] Gunn, Fashion Bible,182.
[ix] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons: Military Footwear in the Age of Empire’, Shoes: A History From Sandals To Sneakers, ed. G. Riello & P. McNeil (London & New York, 2006), 116-37.
[x] V. Friedman, ‘The no-tie decree is a poorly dressed-up message to the world’, Financial Times (22/23 June, 2013), 9.