Tom is rather perplexed by the tradition of calf-length socks on men: I have read on various men’s style sites that formal socks should ‘really’ reach up to your knees. Is this true, who does it and where on earth do you buy socks like that?
Tom, it is true that traditionally socks ended just below the knee. Many men of a sartorial bent still where their socks like that, including myself, and there are many advantages to it. As with any tradition of men’s dress, though, it is up to you whether you want to adopt this one when you’ve heard the reasons for its existence.
The primary advantage is that when you sit down, no one in the vicinity will be exposed to the hairy, pasty skin of your shins. Normal socks might cover that eventuality when you sit down initially, but if you cross your legs or put your feet up, neighbours or colleagues might not be so lucky.
The emphasis on not flashing your skin like this is understandable if you consider how a man in the 1930s, say, would dress. He would rarely take his jacket off, his shirtfront would be covered by a waistcoat and that shirt was considered underwear. If you are that buttoned-up elsewhere, of course you wouldn’t voluntarily display your bare legs.
But then that man would always wear a tie, and not roll up his sleeves. If today someone wears an open-necked shirt, and so offers a glimpse of his pasty chest, why worry about his pasty legs?
Well in my opinion there is an elegance about wearing longer socks. Because of the curve of the calf, they are anchored below the knee and remain taut. Short socks, on the other hand, never, never stay up.
I’m always puzzled by other men who ask me ‘why don’t long socks fall down?’ They are imagining loose, woolly things we used to wear for playing football. Which were always puddling around the ankles. Dress cotton socks are something very different. A bit of ribbing and some finer texture around the top and they never move, let alone puddle.
Indeed, men used to consider it so important to have taut socks that they wore sock suspenders – fastening them to a band of elastic under the knee. I’ve never understood why it was worth this contraption just for a little bit of air on the calves, but perhaps socks as a whole were harder to keep up given the lack of manmade fibres.
It makes sense that dress socks should be sharp and taut. Casual socks can be anything you want, but the gap between fine worsted-wool trouser and highly polished Oxford should really be filled by something equally smart. As per usual the Italians have a phrase for this, saying that ‘only bus drivers wear short socks’.
Traditional, long socks are usually made of merino wool. But while merino is surprisingly cool, it is still a lot warmer than cotton and – for me – too hot for central heating. I have three or four pairs of merino ones for winter, indeed I am wearing them now, but otherwise is mercerised cotton the rest of the year.
As to wear to buy them, Tom, any traditional outfitter will stock a few pairs. Though probably not in that many colours or patterns. Ralph Lauren has a few, though the Purple Label ones tend to be all merino.