Socks have been around for an incredibly long time—as far back as Ancient Egypt, in fact. Our cave-dwelling ancestors were also believed to have made their own foot coverings from the skin of the animals they hunted. Since we rely on socks so much, a closer look at their history should make us appreciate them more. Here’s a history of how socks became a normal part of our everyday wardrobe:
The early history
Hesiod, a Greek poet, mentions in one of his poems of a foot cover made from animal hair called a ‘piloi’. This is believed to have been used as an extra layer of protection for the feet and worn along with sandals. The Romans of the 2nd century A.D. also had something similar called ‘udones’ which were usually made from woven fabric or leather. Compared to previous versions of foot cover, these udones bear more similarity to modern socks.
As commonplace as socks are today, it may surprise you to know that these miniature leg warmers were considered a status symbol at one point in history, specifically before the year 1000 AD, when only members of the European nobility could wear them.
Fortunately, this changed in the 16th century when knitting machines were invented and rose in popularity. It was the English reverend William Lee who invented the knitting loom in 1958, speeding up and maximizing the production of knit fabrics, which in turn increased the supply of socks to the masses.
Yet even as socks became more widely available, there was still a divide in the kind of material commoners and noblemen could wear. Poor people could only afford wool socks, while the rich enjoyed the comfort and social status that came with wearing silk.
The fashionable and manly leg
Stockings were initially made for men to wear, not women. However, with the fashion trend taking a turn in favor of breeches and tunics, men also switched from wearing hoses—which were separately worn for each leg—to wearing single-piece leg garments that reached the crotch. It wasn’t until 1560 when women also started wearing stockings, following the trend set by Queen Elizabeth I.
Fashion back in the day was a minor form of torture, to say the least. Their focus was not on producing comfortable and relaxing socks for men, but on showing off design and status.
The evolution of stockings to socks
As you would expect, fashion trends became erratic during the next couple of centuries, with men wearing longer or shorter stockings according to what was viewed as fashionable at the time.
In Germany, for instance, puffy sleeves and pants with slashes were considered to be classy garb. These slashes were meant to show off their brightly-colored hose. Spanish gentleman wore knitted stockings made from the finest silk, with their emblems embroidered to show their allegiance.
During the 17th century, cotton became the fabric of choice for socks, although the lengths still varied greatly. Around the 1900s, however, it was clear that mid-calf and knee socks were here to stay and men proudly wore them in different colors, patterns, and decorations.
Since the invention of nylon in 1938, the function and usage of socks changed dramatically. Nylon is strong and durable, two characteristics that make this material perfect for socks. In fact, most of the socks today are blended with nylon.
Other common materials used today for socks are wool, cotton, acrylic, spandex, and polyester.
And just when you thought people would be done experimenting with sock designs, the 21st century rolls in with even more unique, functional, and quirky ones. Today, you can find men’s toe socks (encases each toe the same way gloves do), flip-flop socks (meant for wearing flip-flops), and “business” socks—socks that are meant for casual or conservative wear—to name a few.
It’s not unusual to find socks with designs that reflect our interests, too. Who hasn’t seen a Star Wars or Family Guy themed sock? With a quick search online, you’ll easily find a pair of socks to satisfy the fanatic in you, whether you’re into Game of Thrones, the Marvel Universe franchise, or Hello Kitty.
There you have it, a brief yet interesting summary of how socks evolved from the clumsy foot covers of our cave-dwelling ancestors to the ultra-comfortable ones we wear today. While it’s unclear whether humanity might see another pronounced change in the shape and form of socks in the next couple of hundred years, for now, we men can at least appreciate the fact that we don’t have to wear them to our crotch as a status symbol.