I should confess at the outset here that for a long time, I didn’t like purple. In fact, puerile though such rankings can be, if pressed I’d likely once have cited it as my least favourite colour.
Fortunately, over time preferences change and tastes evolve to the point where now I’d even call myself a fan. Certainly, the number of bookmarked photos on my phone of people wearing purple in one form or another suggests as much. Knit jumpers have become a particular favourite, although I’m also partial to some bits of leisurewear I’ve seen, ditto the occasional scarf or necktie, or even a sumptuous robe and Albert slipper.
There was a time when flecks of purple in a print or colourway would have send me packing, but now I can’t seem to get enough. That said, personally I still find it works better as a smaller accent as opposed to the main attraction.
Which brings us to the subject of socks. Purple socks are everywhere in menswear at the minute. Akin to turned-up cuffs on a pair of selvedge jeans or the precise collar roll of a well-made button-down, a fancy pair of purple socks has become one of the myriad ways to pin your colours to the proverbial menswear mast.
I had long believed that the look started with Drake’s founder Michael Drake, for whom it was (in his words) ‘a signature eccentricity’. Although I’ve since read that he named Michel Barnes as his inspiration, a detail gleaned from another purple sock advocate in the form of Jason Jules, who in turn cites such men’s style grandees as Bruce Boyer, Aleks Cvetkovic, Kevis Manzi, Mark Large, and Ethan Wong as fellow fans.
On the subject of the colour’s appeal in hosiery form, Mr Jules is as eloquent and informative as ever: ‘While it might not have the power of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, I find that when it comes to classic modern menswear the purple sock comes a close second, magically complementing almost every combination of casual clothing.’
To point to the almost preternatural properties of purple seems right on the money. It does, uncannily, seem to go with everything you throw at it, from black to white to just about every shade and hue in between. Perhaps, dare I say it — and this is almost certainly my former bias as a damson detractor talking — it’s because it doesn’t fully go with anything? Purple has an odd quality of both blending in and standing out, of feeling at once pleasingly tonal and bright enough to catch the eye. It is equal parts subtle and dramatic, sophisticated and risqué, restrained and playful. It’s serious but not stuffy, attention-grabbing but not too overwhelming. Hence its near infinite possibilities, at least as far as sock-and-outfit combos are concerned.
Of course, the colour’s prevailing association continues to be its longstanding ties to kings, clergymen, and (as the saying goes) all those born in the purple. As Kassia St Clair points out in The Secret Lives of Colour, a belief that purple is somehow special, and that it signifies power, is surprisingly widespread:
‘In Republican Rome it was a tightly constrained badge of status. Triumphant generals could wear a purple and gold robe; those in the field, plain purple. Senators, consuls and praetors (a kind of magistrate) wore a broad Tyrian band on their togas; knights a narrow band. This visual hierarchy changed upon Caesar’s return to Rome, when the rules became even more draconian. By the fourth century AD only the emperor was allowed to wear Tyrian purple; anyone else caught wearing it could face death. Once, the emperor Nero saw a woman in mollusc-mauve at a recital. He had her dragged from the room, stripped naked and relieved of her property, so seriously did he equate the colour with imperial power. Diocletian, a Roman ruler who was more pragmatic (or perhaps just greedier) than the others, said that anyone could wear the colour, just so long as they could afford the exorbitant fee and all the profit went to him.’
Purple’s regal reputation extended eastward as well. Byzantine queens once gave birth in wine-dark rooms (hence the violet-hued phrase applied to blue bloods cited above) and in Japan a deep purple, murasaki, was kin-jiki — a forbidden colour — which was off-limits to ordinary people.
Of course, much of this was rooted in just how resource- and labour-intensive the production of purple pigments once was. But the mass production of mauve in the nineteenth century (the happy byproduct of a failed attempt at synthesising quinine from coal tar in the hopes of curing malaria) led to the democratisation of purple as we know it today. Curiously, though, its association with opulence and excess endures, making it so that the flash of a purple sock today can still mark you as a person in the know.
As far as finding the right pair goes, the increasing trendiness of purple socks means you can buy them everywhere from Amazon and Uniqlo to Drakes and Pantherella as your budget allows. I personally have three pairs nestled in my bureau already and have a feeling they won’t be the last. After all, since few of us will ever have the opportunity to touch the cloaks of kings, at the very least we can knick the look of their favourite stockings.
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