Summer is for Athletic Sock Lovers

Man wearing athletic socks and penny loafers
Image is my own / All rights reserved

It used to be the case that I would ditch any and all socks when the warmer months rolled around. A lifelong love of short shorts and sandals (not to mention a barefoot phase that we needn’t dwell on) meant that I had little use for them in the summers of my youth. Then when I started dressing up a bit more — by switching out flip-flops for closed shoes, for example — I kept to this dictum in spirit and appearance if not entirely to the letter. Instead of going wholly sockless, for reasons of comfort and hygiene, I opted instead to fill a corner of my underwear drawer with secret socks to see me all through spring and summer. 

In recent years, however, I’ve come to embrace the joys of the summer sock. Not the ones that are worn in secret or for purely practical, sweat-wicking purposes, but socks that announce themselves proudly and joyfully. I mean the variegated knit ones you might don with a pair of Birkenstock Bostons, or some bright and eyecatching numbers that jump out beneath the flair of a trouser leg or above a set of summer-ready loafers. Pick your preferred poison: Maybe it’s something in tie-dye, or those Kapital ones with the smiley faces at the heel. Perhaps it’s the kind of sparkling white pair that I sung the praises of last summer, or — as is the case for me most recently — the unbeatable classic that is the striped athletic sock.

Right now, I’m not really spending any money on clothes. Partly it’s because (surprise, surprise) I already have more than enough, and partly it’s down to the price inflation everyone’s experiencing right now, which naturally makes you reassess your purchasing priorities. My one exception, however, has been replenishing the stores of my sock drawer with some enthusiasm. Call it a summer indulgence. Some people dance around maypoles or go to Glastonbury to celebrate the season; it turns out that what I do is buy a whole bunch of socks. 

Man wearing RoToTo striped socks
Image is my own / All rights reserved

To mark this most recent solstice, I’ve been procuring athletic sock supplies everywhere from big hitters like Amazon and Uniqlo through to smaller makers like the Japanese brand RoToTo or, somewhat closer to home, Ivy Ellis, a local Scottish outfit based in Inverness. 

In a way, it seems strange that it took me this long to get into them. I’ve long been obsessed with all things Americana, covering myself head-to-toe in the likes of baseball caps, button-downs, bluejeans, and penny loafers every chance that I get. And when you narrow the sartorial scope down to just the ankle region, what (short of strapping some stars and stripes to your shins) spells vintage U.S. of A. more clearly than a pair of tube socks? 

When these all-American athletic socks first came to prominence last century with the rise in the US of hosiery-heavy sports like basketball and soccer, they arrived in the form of long, typically white, one-size-fits-all units that — as the name suggests — were tube- rather than L-shaped since they lacked a structured heel. Over the years, though, the term ‘tube sock’ has been applied more widely to include a broader church of athletic socks, even the shorter ones with shaped heels.

Tom Meschery, Bob Rule and Wilt Chamberlain wearing tube socks
Tom Meschery, Bob Rule, Wilt Chamberlain and company wearing tube socks
Image credit: The Sporting News Archives / Public domain

The tube sock proper was invented in 1967 by the Nelson Knitting Company of Rockford, Illinois, who created a machine that could knit one of their new socks in just five or six seconds. The absence of a heel sped up the manufacturing process by about 30 per cent compared to traditionally shaped socks. It also meant that size wasn’t a consideration, so they could be produced at a greater scale and, therefore, at a reduced price. Nelson Knitting also didn’t patent the technique, which meant for even more price deflation thanks to a flooded marketplace as other manufacturers rushed to get in on the game. All of which meant that the humble tube sock came to represent a real sense of democracy in dress: They were widely available, cheap to buy, and ready to wear for just about anyone.

They were also fit for any number of uses. It seems only natural that a multi-purpose sock employed in just about every sporting activity you could name should prove equally useful off of the track or field. So, inevitably, athletic socks steadily made their way into the everyday fashion and popular culture of the 1960s and ’70s.

In the latter case, the humble tube sock is often used to conjure a sense of that aforementioned nostalgia for the America of yesteryear (To test this theory, just try and think of any sports scene in a throwback movie — anywhere from Grease through to Everybody Wants Some!! — that doesn’t feature a rose-tinted depiction of a group of teens wearing stripy tube socks and woefully inadequate footwear). Either that or they’re used as a shorthand to identify a certain brand of on-screen nerd. If that seems odd, given the sock’s sporting origins, take it up with the likes of Steve Urkel, Tina Belcher, or Anthony Michael Hall in any John Hughes movie.

There is perhaps nowhere outside of the sports field where athletic socks have found a more lasting and iconic place than in American collegiate wear. Preps have been showing the rest of us how to rock the casual white sock for decades, wearing them with just about anything, including jeans and penny loafers, chinos and CVOs, and madras shorts and moccasins.

President John F. Kennedy wearing athletic socks with his family
Image credit: thesmuggler / CC BY 2.0

Summery socks — whichever kind you choose — are surprisingly versatile and always fun to wear. As those long-time purveyors of all things prep over at Ivy Style put it:

‘There’s something about light-colored socks that puts a spring in your step. As you move, you catch the light color from the corner of your eye, especially if you’re wearing pants with a barely-there break. Gradually this sinks into your mind so that you’re always slightly conscious — which is not the same as being self-conscious — that you’ve got on light-colored socks, and it lifts your spirits.’

It has certainly proven true in my case, which is why I plan to spend the rest of summer slipping, sliding, and dancing about the place in a pair of summery tube socks like I’m Tom Cruise in Risky Business.