Friday, July 20, 2012

Sock It To Me

Chapter 76
This week, we're going to dial it back a little, and go back to the basics of an Average Guy sartorial education. It's summer, it's hot, you're on vacation, and the last thing you want to do on vacation is overly tax your brains. So we'll keep it simple -- a topic so simple, it's often overlooked among the suits and hats and shoes, which get all the attention.

Let's consider socks. That's right: socks, the part of your attire that is quite literally the furthest from your mind. Socks are important, but too often overlooked in the heady rush to find the perfect jacket, the most awesome tie, or the ideal hat. The sock serves a mundane, utilitarian function: in winter, thick wooly ones keep your ankles warm; in summer, light cottony ones keep your shoes from getting sweaty and smelly. The sock is a small part of your attire from the point of view of fashion, but it is an important one nonetheless.

If you think of your socks as something that is never seen, then you are wearing your trousers too long. If your trousers are the proper length in the leg, whether straight or cuffed, the front should just break over the instep of your shoe, and cut back at a slight angle toward the rear, long enough to cover your socks completely, and the top ¼ to ½ inch of your shoes. When standing, no sock should be seen -- but when walking briskly, a flash of sock should be visible. When sitting normally in a chair, a couple inches of sock should be shown -- and when sitting cross-legged, several inches of sock is very visible.

What should your socks look like? Patience: we'll get there...

Let's deal with the issue of length first. When wearing trousers, your socks should be long enough that you never show a hint of leg, at any time. Test this by kneeling down, or by pulling your knee up to your chest. If there's as much as a glimpse of your hairy old calves, your socks are too short, and you need to purchase a longer size: calf-length or over-the-calf. When you wear shorts (e.g., on vacation) you need socks that are ankle-length. Calf-length socks with shorts are verboten. Don't cheat by scrunching long socks down, or rolling them: one looks sloppy, the other effeminate. True ankle-length only, that covers the ankle bones: for low-rise socks are an abomination. No socks are worn while swimming, approaching the sea to swim, or walking from the sea after having swum. Period.

If you like hand-knitted socks, garters are still made. 




Next, we move on to construction. Most socks are made with elastic sewn into the top these days, rendering sock garters unnecessary and wrinkled, droopy socks a thing of the past. If you have muscled calves that push your socks down, wear an over-the-calf model. There's no reason for droopy socks in today's world. Stay away from tube-style socks: your feet aren't shaped like tubes, nor should your socks be. Good socks will have reinforced toe caps, be made with a heel, and fit within a narrow range of shoe sizes -- not a one-size-fits-all.

Now, let's discuss materials. Stout wool is good insulation from the cold, cotton for heat and sportswear (although thin merino wool wicks perspiration better than cotton ever could,) any number of manufactured rayon/dacron/etc. blends are available, as well as more exotic materials like cashmere. There is but one place for thin black silk, and that is formalwear. A modern trend that bears consideration, and my personal preference, are socks made of bamboo viscose fiber; they have antimicrobial properties, as well as being remarkably soft and comfortable, they wick well, and are reasonably hard-wearing. Ultimately, you should be less concerned with exactly of what your socks are made, and more concerned with how much they cost, how long they last, how well they work, and how good they look.

That leads us to value. While it may seem to be a good deal to reach for the cheapest bag-o-socks at the big box store at five dollars a dozen, you will get a better bang for your buck by purchasing single pairs of higher quality. Pick and choose your selected colors and patterns, rotate through your socks, and discard them out of rotation at the first sign of thinning at the heel, and you will get more wears per dollar than "discount" socks can give you. This doesn't mean more expensive means longer lasting; by that logic, some Italian socks would last forever!


The price-value curve is a sharply-flattening asymptotic one in sockdom: a very small investment over the bargain-basement offerings can yield a sock of much higher quality, but you won't see much more improvement than that, even at a much higher price.

Now, the best quality and value sock on the planet will be of no use if it looks like moldy burlap, so now we'll turn our attention to appearances.

First, white socks of any description should not be worn with trousers -- ever. Wear them for sportswear, or at the gym. They have no other place in an adult's wardrobe.

As to color, pay no attention to the fashion bloggers who argue amongst themselves as to whether socks should match the trousers, match the shoes, match the tie, et cetera. Be more concerned with tone matching. Don't wear bright-colored socks for business use. Your work suiting will be in charcoals and greys and perhaps browns, maybe with pinstripes or overchecks, on largely smooth and plain fabrics -- in old-fashioned terms, "town wear." Match your socks to the sombre tone, with charcoals and greys and blacks. Don't go more extravagant than pindots or birdseyes, and keep the socks in a smooth or lightly ribbed texture. At work, your socks should be thoroughly in the background, and your tie should do the work of personalization alone.

After work, or with "country wear," is where you can let your personality show a bit more. Think of the relationship of sock to trousers as parallel to that of pocket square and jacket; a bit of color that enhances the overall impact of an outfit without overwhelming it. In the cooler months, where your suiting tends toward heavier or more textured wools and corduroys, your socks should become proportionately thicker and more heavily ribbed or textured as well. Your palette can run to the colors of fall, the rusts, russets, greens, greys, and burgundys; but muted and darkened in hue, and always tone-matched to your outfit. Patterns of herringbone, checks, stripes, houndstooth, tartan, and the ubiquitous Argyle can add some variety and interest to your lower extremities in the winter months.

As winter gives way to spring, and the world brightens around you, the muted tones can give way to brighter hues. As the dark suits of January gradually melt into the sport coats and tan trousers of April, your socks should brighten as well. Lighter tans and browns with stripes, checks, or figures work well with khakis and loafers, and your Argyle and houndstooth selections can become more vibrant as the weather clears and the trees awaken.

The heat of summer, with its commensurate explosion of color and style and general air of vacationality, is the time to go more experimental, like socks that exactly match your shirt or pocket square. Pastel socks in complementary colors: canary yellow against light blue trousers? Why not! Horizontal stripes, or bright multi checks? Sure! Anything goes; summer is the time to go a little crazy, as long as the outfit is in proper balance. For instance, a Bermuda suit with an aloha shirt needs a light solid-color ankle sock to ground it somewhat. Remember that all resort shorts need ankle socks, and unless you are playing shuffleboard or tennis, they should not be white, should tone-match the outfit, and most likely be plain.

The perfectly-engineered sock hanger.
Just a final few words about care: don't store your socks by pairing them together and turning them inside out in a bundle. Everyone does it, I know...but stop. It wears the elastic out prematurely, pulls them out of shape, and hides any wear (and the patterns and colors!) from view. If your socks come on wee little hangers, save them. Smooth your socks flat out of the dryer, re-hang them, and either lay them in a drawer or hang them up. You can choose a pair much easier, and inspect the heel wear at the same time. It may seem a bit fussy at first, but trust me: you'll thank me after the first two weeks.

Oh, one last thing: you will notice, in your sock shopping, that men's socks in the mid-price range are disturbingly mundane. Most are plain and dark; fine for work. Some are tan and grey and figured, and there are a few subtle checks and several Argyles. Once you find those, you will find yourself against a wall fairly rapidly. You will look in vain for the bright colors and vibrant patterns you know exist, but apparently not in your price range. Here's a secret: peek in the women's-wear section of the store. Socks are unisex, despite their packaging: if it fits, it fits. Sometimes the careful application of The Other Side's socks can give just the right effect to a bright summer ensemble. (Shh...I won't tell if you won't.)

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