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We Wear Them All the Time, but When Did Socks Become a Thing?

By Beth Clark • December 04, 2018

The First Socks and Their Evolution

Socks are such a basic item that they're easy to take for granted...and leave on the floor, shove under beds, or lose to the dryer monster. (It happens to the best of us.) But socks actually deserve mad props for keeping our wiggly and sometimes stinky feet dry, warm, and free from blisters, so in honor of National Sock Day, here's a little history of how they became a thing and some guidelines on what kind to wear and when…or not.

Until the 17th century, socks were called stockings, but according to Wikipedia, the modern English word sock (first recorded in 1690, btw), evolved from the Old English socc which evolved from the Latin soccus…"a lightweight shoe worn by ancient Greek and Roman comic actors." Socks are worn on our feet (mostly) and come in various lengths, fabrics, colors, patterns, and styles, depending on their intended purpose, i.e. thick wool socks for skiing, thin wool dress socks for business, and short white socks for running. But the first socks were actually made from leather or matted animal hair – called "piloi" in 8th century BC Greece. A thousand years later in the 2nd century AD, the Romans were the first ones to sew woven fabrics together and make fitted socks ("udones").

The oldest surviving socks are a red-orange pair from between 250 AD and 420 AD that were excavated from Oxyrhynchus on the Nile in Egypt. They were made with the nålebinding technique, which means "knotless netting" and uses a single thread...the precursor to modern-day knitting and crochet. And they have split toes specifically for—gasp!—wearing with sandals. (Which the ancient Romans and Greeks did more or less exclusively, so they get a pass on any fashion judgement.) Speaking of Egypt, socks were so important that alongside all of the gold and jewels, King Tut's tomb supposedly contained several pairs made from linen.

In the Middle Ages, socks were brightly-colored and started becoming more of a fashion statement. As trousers got shorter over the next few centuries, socks got longer…and more expensive. So expensive, in fact, that by the end of the first millennia, socks were actually a status symbol among the nobility, and had also become highly ornamental. #FunFact: a fancy design that's embroidered or woven on each side or the outer side of a sock beginning at the ankle is called a clock. Who knew?

As societies progressed, so did socks, and they were made from wool, silk, and cotton, depending on a person's economic class (nobles = silk; peasants = wool). Besides being a display of wealth, socks served an important utilitarian purpose since even nobles faced harsh conditions at times. (Indoor heating wasn't a thing until the 20th century, so keeping those piggies warm was essential…frostbite didn't care if someone was wealthy.) Peasants especially were exposed to the elements way more than we are today and needed to protect their feet from the wet and cold. (They also bathed less often, so if you think your teen's basketball socks are stinky, just imagine the funk of a 16th century pair.)

Socks were so critical to life that mending them—called "darning"—was a very important skill. Cold feet led to frostbite which could lead to gangrene which could lead to death, so when a sock had a hole in it, it most definitely got fixed! As early as the 12th century, the heel of a sock was the last part made, which made it easier to replace when it wore out…a very common practice. Sock owners took their maintenance seriously.

The knitting machine's arrival on the scene in 1589 was a game-changer since six pairs of socks could be made in the time it took to create one previously, but socks were still hand-knit alongside the machines for another couple hundred years. A tiny percentage are still made that way today. Socks were historically held up with ribbons or ties or by garters since elastic wasn't a thing yet. Until Jedediah Strut's Derby Rib machine in 1758, that is, but it was so expensive that it took almost two more centuries before more socks were held up by elastic than garters. To put it in perspective, in 1899 England, a pair of socks sold for the equivalent of $15 today…a LOT back then.

The next biggest thing to happen to socks was—drumroll please—the 1938 introduction of…nylon. The blended fabric was born, and synthetics changed the sock world, along with the rest of it. With socks now being made from recycled plastics, their evolution has come full circle in the last 80 years. The most common blends today include cotton, wool, and polyester or nylon, but socks are also made with silk, spandex, bamboo, and other fabrics.

Another big moment in the evolution of socks was globalizing production. In 2011, the Datang district of Zhuji in the Zhejiang Province of China was known as "Sock City." Why? Because it was producing 8 billion pairs of socks each year, which was a third of the world's annual total. Finding accurate sales numbers is challenging but suffice to say that BILLIONS of pairs of socks are sold each year for even more billions of dollars, the competition is fierce, and socks are almost as high-tech as electronics in some facets of their engineering.

The Rules of Socks

We've established that socks come in all kinds of fabric configurations and all kinds of styles, some of the common categories being: dress socks, athletic socks, hiking socks, ski socks, knee socks, tube socks, ankle socks, foot socks, boot socks, novelty socks, booties, slipper socks, tights, and pantyhose. There's no question that with the help of socks, shoes protect your feet from debris, disease, injury, and the elements. But sometimes, it's the outer world that needs to be protected from sweaty or smelly feet. To that end, businesses and venues with dress codes will usually tell you if socks are required (that would be yes 98% of the time). But what about when it's completely up to you? Socially and hygienically, are there times that you should always—or never—wear socks? (That would also be yes.)

When to Sock:

  • Anytime the health department says you have to.
  • Anytime your doctor says you should.
  • Anytime it would be gross not to. (We're talkin' to you, bowling.)
  • Anytime you'll be walking for a long distance, be it urban or wilderness.
  • Anytime you need to keep your feet warm and/or dry. (If you're going somewhere wet that's not tropical, wear socks. Better safe than sorry.)
  • During athletic activities. (Athletic socks + athletic shorts = yes. Other shorts = no.)
  • At weddings, funerals, and formal events.
  • If you're prone to sweaty or stinky feet, anytime you're putting them in enclosed shoes¹.
  • With boots and lace-up shoes.
  • When your athleisure ensemble looks better with socks¹.

When Not to Sock¹:

  • With sandals...that's why they're sandals.
  • With casual shorts.
  • With boat shoes or loafers in summer.
  • With flip flops, unless you live someplace where that's the thing to do.

Other Guidelines:

  • Dress shoes = dress socks. (They're made for each other.)
  • To elongate your silhouette, match your socks to your pants, not your shoes.
  • Unless you're going for a 50s look, white socks with dark pants area generally a nope.
  • Black socks with black pants work, but they can be kinda formal otherwise.
  • Novelty socks are fun, but there's a time and a place, so make sure yours know theirs. (Unless you're an elementary school teacher, and then, just make sure they're PG.)

¹Invisible socks are an actual thing, and a viable option for when you want the best of both worlds or comfort and/or hygiene dictate wearing socks, but not the kind that show. They're almost better than sliced bread. Yes, there are powders and insoles that can help offset sweaty or stinky, but socks won't leave residue in your shoes and you can just throw them in the wash when you need to. Which leads us to...

Where Lost Socks Really Go

Seriously, lost socks are a real and quantifiable phenomenon. But quantum physics theories aside, the average person loses 1,264 socks over his or her lifetime, so where do they GO? One clue is the way that some socks take a detour and mysteriously show up within the next couple of laundry loads. So, they weren't really lost, they were stuck in a fitted sheet, stuck to a sweater, stuck under the upper rim of the washing machine basket, or otherwise occupied for a bit. The socks that are actually lost could be under the bed, they could have fallen out of your gym bag in the locker room or landed in a gutter when you were walking, someone might have thrown a sock away because it had a hole and they didn't know how to darn it, they could be stuck to something neatly folded in a drawer somewhere, or they could actually be IN the washing machine in a hose, filter, or other part, especially if they're small, and ditto with the dryer! (Yes, really...certain models can literally eat your socks.)

Books About Socks

Because, after all, we are about books here. Enjoy (and happy sock hunting)!

Odd Socks by Michelle Robinson
George Washington's Socks (Time Travel Adventure Series, Book #1) by Elvira Woodruff
Smelly Socks by Robert Munsch
White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman
Socks for Christmas: A Child’s Discovery of the True Meaning of Christmas by Andy Andrews
The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (Series Book #1) by Nancy McArthur
Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss
Socks by Beverly Cleary
The Big Book of Socks: The Ultimate Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Knitting Socks, by Kathleen Taylor
Try Walking a Mile N My Socks by Melanie Luja

Read more by Beth Clark

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