White Socks: A Sign of the Times

Close-up of a pair of white socks
Image credit: Ryutaro Tsukata from Pexels

As I write this, on a typically rainy August day in Edinburgh, I’m aware that we’re beginning to reach the crest of summer and will soon tumble headlong down the leafy hillside of autumn. And while I find myself checking the weather constantly in search of what might be the last unambiguously sunny day of the season, there’s no denying that colder weather will soon be upon us. In the spirit of summer’s last gasp, when considering what to write about this week, various white-hued garments kept presenting themselves. This is the final week before American Labour Day, after all, that oft-touted and rarely heeded marker of the sartorial seasons, before which summer style is fair game but after which wearing white is strictly verboten — supposedly. 

It was in this spirit that I started thinking about white socks. Talk about things verboten. Regardless of the season, white socks tend to raise an eyebrow in certain company. Or at least they used to. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that white socks are a perfect symbol for the current menswear moment. 

Close-up of brown pants and shoes with white socks
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Menswear, for about as long as it’s been around, has loved rules. From the moment Beau Brummel started fussing about how precisely to tie that pesky cravat of his, style-minded men the world over have agonised over the dos and don’t of dressing. These rules, which are often fiercely debated and categorically disseminated, might feel stifling or confusing at times, but they’re also part of the joy of learning about clothes, even for those who relish breaking them.

And, these days, there are a lot of rule-breakers around. Pin it on the pandemic, perhaps. It made us all realise that life is short and that sweatpants suck (when they are all you’re wearing for months at a time, anyway). So, it’s no surprise that the last few months have seen such a flourishing of new and forgotten styles, all seemingly driven by joie de vivre and a sense of fun. Think of all the ’70s lapels, the cowboy clothing, or all those colourful, thigh-baring shorts. Or of the current mishmash of tailoring and streetwear, as seen in the recent collections by Drakes, Aimé Leon Dore, Rowing Blazers, Noah, and others.

The latter instance would no doubt be bound more directly to economic considerations than to any vaccine-induced merriment. The retail crisis precipitated by the pandemic, coupled with a bottoming-out of any interest in formalwear — perhaps nowhere more evident than the high-profile bankruptcy declarations by Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and others — meant that brands have needed to adapt. Stepping out of their usual lane and courting a different demographic seems a good way to do that. Still, it’s been fun to see how these styles have made their way into the way regular guys dress.

Moreover, it feels as though now, more than ever, just about any aesthetic is up for grabs. The flipside of a death of counterculture is that anyone can wear anything. It’s hard to think of a time when as many different looks were in style all at once. Walk down any centre-city street, for instance, and pay attention just to the jeans that fashionable young people are wearing. You’ll see kids in denims that are baggy, bell-bottomed, straight-legged, and slim-cut (much as skinny jeans have supposedly been booted by Zoomers). You’ll spot them in high and low rises, stone-washed and unwashed, selvedged and ripped to shreds. Everything is fair game.

All of which is to say, those oft-touted rules are regularly getting a work-around these days. Ten years ago, at the height of the great menswear resurgence, dressing up was all about getting it right. Now, it would seem, it’s more often about getting it wrong — deliberately and with intention. 

Tennis player Lew Hoad 1954
Image credit: State Library of Victoria / Public domain

At which point, enter the white sock. The rules say that they are strictly for sports. Although, of course, stylish types have been working them into the rest of their wardrobes for decades, and, in recent years, white socks have returned to menswear with a bang. You see them worn with casual suits, with dressy trousers and Albert slippers, with jeans and Belgian loafers, and proudly pulled up high alongside shorts, sneakers, and sandals. With all the boundary-pushing afoot, there are few other rules quite as enticing (or accessible) to break as those dictating the use the of white sock.

Should you wish to try out some snowy socks, you’re in good company, historically speaking. Starting in the 1950s and spilling into the ’60s, college-aged men began incorporating white socks into their everyday dress. Leaf through images of mid-century college campuses — the seminal Take Ivy (1965) being a prime example — and you’ll regularly see sporty-looking socks peeking out above assorted plimsolls and penny loafers. 

The celebs did it too. Think of Dean Martin, who wore them as a signature for decades, or a Jailhouse Rock-era Elvis. Or picture that famous photo of a windblown Paul Newman sitting beer-in-hand on a boat in the Florida Keys. He’s wearing a pale-toned sweatshirt, trouser, and canvas shoe combo, with none other than some chalky mid-length socks to match. 

Image credit: Pixabay

In Britain, the mods followed suit, as did other music-oriented groups like the soul boys, rude boys, teddy boys, and skinheads. All the way into the 1980s, popular music continued to have its white-socked champions in the forms of Axl Rose and, most famously of all, Michael Jackson. 

But from there white socks fell from grace somewhat and by the ’90s had become the schlubby garb of dads, grandads, and tube-socked jocks. They did, after all, constitute basically the entirety of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ onstage garb for a time, and let’s just say they weren’t only wearing them on their feet.

Luckily, however, white socks have recently been rehabilitated by stylish stars like Tyler, the Creator, designers like Fred Castleberry, and menswear mavens like Tony Sylvester. Should you wish to get in on the action and turn a few heads with some unruly hosiery, my only advice would be this: Get there quickly. A few more weeks and you’ll start having mud and snow to contend with and those will wreak absolute havoc on any well-appointed, white stocking.

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