It’s summer. And for the elegantly-dressed, hot weather is accompanied by delicate conundrums. Compared to displaying one’s own bare skin, cloth is a relatively uncomplicated affair.
Until recently this question hardly arose as the body was expected to remain covered in polite society from ankle to wrist to neck, and above the crown of the head. With the unwinding of society’s fixation with and disapproval of the public human body these convenient coverings have steadily receded. Today, we are less burdened in summer with devising how to wear all this fabric without resembling a perspiring water fountain. Rather we are doubly vexed by how to present geographically more skin, accompanied here and there by appealingly fashioned scraps of cotton, linen, silk and other cool plant materials.
Following that rather grandiose panorama of style, heat, and ebbing exhortations of modesty, I’d like to address just one unassuming yet significant dilemma: that of how to wear socks with shorts.
For most of their modern history, socks have played a carefree supporting role to the lounge suit as the least-scandalous of undergarments, seen only on the occasion of crossed legs or a shoe shine. With the advent of short trousers (shorts) to accommodate sportive and adventurous types hosiery became visible, yet it remained long in form and worn pulled up to cover the leg below the knee.
During the second world war, clothing restrictions imposed a legal maximum sock-length with the aim of economising on textiles. In the United Kingdom:
One of the most unpopular of austerity restrictions was the length of men’s socks. This indignity, which meant that socks could be no longer than 9 inches, caused even more upset among white-collar men than the loss of trouser turn-ups.[i]
While aversion to utilitarian short socks persisted among conservative dressers long after the restriction was lifted (ever seen a photo of your grandfather wearing shorts?), society’s mores had tapered and showing at least lower leg ceased to induce a choke of disapproval, even away from the beach.
The predicament then arises: which length socks to wear with shorts?
As I’ve written before, over-the-calf socks are technically faultless. But worn exposed they provoke a shudder. The phenomenon is usually associated with uniforms: for schools, for colonial armies, and for bus drivers. In any case they defeat the very purpose of unsheathing the legs.
Anything shorter than full-length dress hosiery however will not stay up without assistance; and crumpled socks are unspeakably slovenly.
At the opposite end of the spectrum the glorious revolution of socklessness has exploded, representing at first slightly wanton carelessness and then clone-esque, loudly-announced insouciance. Finally the possibility of executing the appearance of discrete dégagé has returned by way of this visual omission.
Logically, hidden socks are enormously sensible in summer as they cover nothing arbitrarily. Practically, the exact design of a functional hidden sock seems to escape most manufacturers. Hosiery needs to grip something if it is to stay up the calf, or indeed just to stay on the foot. If the profile is too high we see sock above the ‘lip’ of the shoe; if it’s too low the sock shivers off and swims disconcertingly around inside the shoe. Various models attempt to compensate for a low profile sock’s precarious grip with silicone pads, however in my experience this is more ingenious-sounding than it is effective.
The fundamental problem is that, through the hard corners and sudden halts of a day in a shoe, a sock needs a firm lasso around some area of the ankle in order to remain on with certainty.
An efficient design was elusive to this proponent of socklessness until by chance I noticed Rede’s ‘invisible footlet’ in a department store recently. It has lasso functionality; it’s skin-camouflage beige colour; and it’s made in Italy. In Italian it says “puro cotone con bordi in lycra”, which I understand to mean that the sock itself is cotton while the elastic lasso is synthetic material.
After repeated wears I can attest that it stays on. The canoe shape allows the rim of the sock to grip firmly around the lower ankle. It involves a modicum of compromise when wearing loafers as the sock is not entirely hidden—though it is ‘invisible’ in lace up shoes—but any overly-curious gazes can deftly be sparred with a light flick of your tassels.
[i] Julie Summers, Fashion on the Rashion: Style in the Second World War, Profile Books, 2015.