This is the first installment of (what I hope to be) a regular series on “things you didn’t know you needed.” The menswear blogosphere is filled with information on blazers, slim fitting shirts, and shoes. I’ll continue to contribute to that pile of information, but let’s talk about things that don’t get so much attention. The first post to this series is about socks.
I get the impression that many of you are spending serious money on outerwear and shoes, but when it comes to socks, you’re off buying chubby tube socks on eBay, ten in a pack, like some convalescing diabetic. It’s what you wore before you started upgrading your wardrobe, and when you saw the guys on page 29 of Take Ivy wearing white tube socks, you breathed a sigh of relief. “Well at least I have this covered,” you said to yourself. Or, because of your uncomfortable relationship with socks, maybe you’re the guy who never wears them, even with things like oxford wingtips. You’re desperately hoping this can be passed off as style as well. In either case, it seems you haven’t come to terms that your socks are just as important as the rest of your attire. You’re off on forums talking about how people need to “dress like grown-ups,” but your sock game is essentially that of a cheerleader’s.
You need good socks for the same reason you need good clothes in general - comfort, aesthetics, and long-term value.
In terms of comfort, you need to consider the whether the socks you’re buying are providing you with cushioning, warmth, breathability, and tactile enjoyment. In these terms, you should generally aim for cashmere-silk blends and extra-fine merinos. They have a good amount of “spring back,” but are still fine enough to comfortably fit into a dress shoe. They also provide more warmth during winter and help wick sweat during summer. For ones with more cooling properties, choose cashmere or merino socks with ribbing. The raised gaps between each rib allow a bit more ventilation. The more ribs you have, the more cooling you’ll get.
Cottons, on the other hand, should generally be avoided. They have virtually no cushioning ability, especially when they’re moist. They also don’t provide warmth or wick sweat. When you wear cotton socks throughout the day, they end up flattening out, getting wet, staying wet, feeling slimy, and then bunching up in the process. They do retain less heat than wool socks, however. Thus, if you insist on wearing them, only use them during the summer, and only if your feet don’t sweat very much. Also go for higher-grade cottons, such as cotton lisle. This is a long staple cotton, which means it has gone through mercerization and singing. Mercerization is the chemical process that increases the cotton’s luster, strength, affinity to dye, and resistance to mildew. Singing (from the word “singe”) is where the cotton is passed through a small gas flame in order to burn off the excess fibers, thus giving it a smoother and more sensuous feel. Cotton lisle, in my opinion, is still not as nice as cashmere-blends of fine merinos, but it’s certainly better than the cotton that Hanes and Fruit of a Loom uses.
All these aspects - cushioning, warmth, and breathability - contribute to the tactile enjoyment of socks. In addition, there are hand-linked toes. Such construction means that there is no seam at the toes, which can chafe away at your foot. The bigger the seam, the bigger the problem. Depending on how sensitive you are, you may want to only buy socks with hand-linked toes.
In terms of aesthetics, you should consider the sock’s design and construction. For design, let me be to the first to ask you to stop buying those wacky Happy Socks. Those things are Coogi sweaters for your feet. They’re uncivilized. There are plenty of options on the market that allow you to present some visual interest without shooting the equivalent of a stun gun into people’s eyes. The most popular patterns are herringbone and pin dot, but you can get sober striped ones as well. As for the color, the general rule has always been that you should match your socks to your pants, so that you extend your vertical lines and thus look taller. However, ignoring this questionable attempt at trickery, I’ve also found that navy socks go with literally anything. If you want, get a few in charcoal, brown, and burgundy, but have a large supply of navy socks so that you’re not fiddling with your sock combos every morning.
The second aesthetic consideration is construction. You need socks that stay up; nothing ruins a look faster than seeing a man’s bare, pale calf peek out from under his pants. Your socks’ ability to stay up is mostly determined by their length and elastic strength. For length, you want over-the-calf socks. The reason is simple. Your calves are shaped like upside down cones. When your socks fit under your calf, the cuff of your socks will be pushed down as you walk. When your socks fit over you calf, the cuff will be pushed up. If you can’t get over-the-calf socks, at least get ones that sit mid-calf. If they sit lower than that, there will be a strong tendency for them to be pushed down because of how sharply angled the bottom of your calf is. Ideally, however, you should have over-the-calf socks made out of a material with high elastic strength. You should also put them on before you put on your pants, so that you can get them as high as possible.
In terms of long-term value, merinos and cottons hold up about the same. However, since cotton tends to flatten more easily, it will become harder and stiffer over time. Cashmere and merino wool socks, however, will stay generally soft throughout their lifespan. If you need more durability, look for cashmere or merino socks that have been mixed with a bit of silk or nylon. These add significant strength to the fibers, though they won’t feel as nice as socks made out of pure cashmere or merino wool. High-end socks should never have more than 20% silk or nylon.
So which makers should you buy from?
My favorite by far is Marcoliani. This seller has them on Amazon. The cashmere models are the most expensive, ranging between $67 and $77, depending on if you want mid-calf or over-the-calf. Merinos are considerably more affordable. The basic over-the-calf models are $25.
You’ll often hear about Pantherella from other sock enthusiasts. They were undisputedly the best a few years ago, but then they were sold to a British maker of cheap socks, H.J. Hall, and the company has been slowly replacing the natural fibers in their socks with nylon. However, they’re much easier to find on sale. Sierra Trading Post, for example, has them for about ~$8.50 per sock once you apply the Facebook discount.
If you’re really strapped for cash, try Gold Toe socks. You can find those nearly anywhere - from eBay to TJ Maxx - and they can be had for as little as $3 per pair. They’re not terribly remarkable, but they’re basic enough. They’re the Allen Edmonds of socks, if you will. If you need to quickly build a basic sock wardrobe, or if you’re skeptical about the value of quality socks, Gold Toes may be a good place to start.
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