Lena Dystant explores the history of a truly universal style staple.
An integral part of everyone’s wardrobe, depending on your preferred definition, the history of the sock goes back as far as the stone age; animal skins and furs tied securely around ankles for protection and warmth. While the first knit socks were discovered in Egyptian tombs of the 3rd century A.D., the word itself originates from the ancient Greek ‘Sykkos’ – a thin, inner shoe often worn with sandals, the beginning of a controversial trend still going strong today. A significant fast-forward to the Middle Ages, the sock would appear in a more familiar form, the length of male hosiery dependent on the fashion of the day. As the decades rolled on socks would rise and shorten in relation to the prevailing trend in men’s breeches or trousers. While silk and cotton socks were reserved for the upper classes, the general public kept feet cosy in affordable wool.
Shaping, quite literally, the course of sock history, Nottinghamshire clergyman, Reverend William Lee, invented the stocking frame knitting machine in 1589. The story goes that the distracted object of his affection spent so much time hand knitting socks that he dedicated three years to developing a machine that would make her hobby redundant and focus her attention on him. Although undoubtedly a revolutionary apparatus, Queen Elizabeth I was less than impressed, refusing Reverend Lee a patent, she deemed his product both too coarse and a threat to the nation’s many hand-knitters.
Today, this universal accessory is available in every size, shape and finish imaginable. Outside of summer, still functional at its core, the sock is generally recognised as an everyday item, ending up as somewhat of an afterthought. Yet, a well-chosen sock can be the finishing touch that either elevates or complements a look, this most uncomplicated item potentially making all the difference.
Colour is where the sock comes into its own and the most enjoyable part of the purchase is selecting just the right shade.
In a crowded market, quality is everything. Investing in a solid, well-made selection of socks benefits on two levels. Firstly, worn close to the skin from morning through to night, natural, breathable yarns such as fine gauge wool and two-ply cotton ensure a comfortable fit right where you need it. Secondly, the look of a sock is dependent on the care paid to its construction. The difference between functional and elegant, a beautifully finished pair is recognisable on even brief inspection.
Colour is where the sock comes into its own and the most enjoyable part of the purchase is selecting just the right shade. Traditionalists take pride in balancing trouser, sock and shoe. Picking a hue around the same part of the spectrum makes an impact by creating a uniform, clean and uninterrupted line of colour. A navy suit and navy sock with a snuff suede shoe or a warm, deep brown corduroy and a chocolate brown sock, are immediately pleasing to the eye and always a good choice.
However, allowing for a little playfulness is the real beauty of the sock. It is the safest way to experiment with colour, a gentle step into the world of vibrant shades. Dark denim and red socks are a classic and naturally pleasing combination; purple can be similarly effective, a regal shade of violet the ideal match for jeans as well as darker shades of blue and grey cloth. Similarly, picking out a brighter strand of colour from a rich tweed is a clever method of pushing bold shades while still keeping tones matched. The options are endless.