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Socks! When did people start wearing them? A long time ago, it turns out. History shows that what we may jokingly call “foot bags” have been around a lot longer than the internet, television, radio, the automobile and a whole lot of other things we take for granted these days.
In a few minutes, you will learn a lot more about the history of socks than you ever imagined possible. And we’ll do our best to keep it interesting, as buried somewhere in here is a history lesson and we all know how much fun history can be. Even about socks.
The Earliest Attempts at “Socks”
People were attempting sock-like foot coverings made from plant matter as early as the Stone Ages. About the year 5000 BC, cavemen were wearing what we now call socks but they would not be recognized as anything other than something to protect the feet and to keep them warm. We only know this thanks to cave paintings that show some kind of clothing worn on feet.
Of course, they didn’t order their socks from trendy online boutiques! They had to get down and dirty and make their own from natural resources.
Because there are no specimens left from that era, scientists and archeologists have speculated that the sock-like clothing worn “back in the day” was more organic in composition. That means they were very likely made from animal skins, pelts and plant life tied around the ankle for support. It is not known what kind of shelf life these items had.
They would have kept the feet drier and safer--less prone to cuts and infections--but at the same time, will have delivered their own share of problems such as encouraging mites, slipping and holding onto wetness.
It’s now recognized and widely accepted that a damp or wet fabric against the skin encourages and stimulates bacterial and fungal growth, so nowadays, soggy socks are a big health concern, and many superior socks include synthetic materials such as polyamide--as seen in this fine black pair--to help wick moisture from the feet. While polyamide has low breathability, combined with natural cotton, it’s the perfect mix that also allows great stretch and cling--thus, high quality modern socks stay up on their own, unlike those raggedy first attempts tied with plant sinews.
It was a few thousand years later when socks were first mentioned by the Greeks. Poet Hesiod wrote about something called “piloi” in the poem “Works and Days” in the 8th Century BC. Piloi was a type of foot covering made from matted animal hair and was worn under sandals. That sounds horrendously unsanitary and itchy compared to today’s super-soft and sumptuous socks, and almost certainly these did not come in luscious lemon yellow and polka-dotted pinks!
The Romans took the ancient Greek “piloi” concept a step further with a rather extreme makeover somewhat later.
It was around the 2nd Century AD when the Romans were habitually wrapping their feet in strips of leather or woven fabric. They soon started sewing different pieces of fabric together, fashioning the first actual fitted socks, although they still would have needed some form of tie to keep them in place, unlike the modern sock that has a clingy cuff. Modern socks may include Spandex, a very fine and extremely versatile super-stretch elastic. The better the quality of sock, the more likely you are to find some element of Spandex in its manufacture.
Special occasion socks as suggested here--with bespoke labeling--would typically comprise something like a 5% Spandex alongside natural cotton and synthetic polyamide, a suitable blend for a more upmarket sock. The unique blend of these on-trend socks delivers the freshness of soft cotton alongside great temperature control, moisture wicking and fine esthetics--a far cry from their scratchy beginnings.
The ancient civilizations had nothing like this modern-day manufacturing capability, of course; the Romans’ attempts at socks were known at the time as “udones”, and they were the first sock-like item to resemble what we wear nowadays. Woolen socks also date back to the Romans.
The Egyptians Get It Right
You’ve got to hand it to the Egyptians. In our history of socks, they come out looking like winners. It was back in 300 – 500 AD when the first actual knit socks were being made in Ancient Egypt. The design was unique in that each sock had split toes--like a pig’s trotter!--which permitted them to be worn with sandals. The technique used to create these socks was called naalbinding.
The socks shown in the above-linked image show how sophisticated the Ancient Egyptians were at weaving techniques and dyeing. The fine shape of the upper foot is also evident, with the bridge of the foot well accommodated in this design.
Breeches, Garters, and Other Fashions
It was in the Middle Ages when the history of socks hit warp (and weft!) speed. It was during this time when trousers were extended and socks became a vital accessory, sported by everyone. Clothing was beginning to differentiate people by their social status, far more than nowadays where anyone can get away with wearing an awesome pair of Argyles or some sassy, grassy, green-striped socks.
Socks of the Middle Ages were made of brightly-colored cloth that fit tightly over the lower part of the leg. Garters were required to hold them in place as elastic hadn’t been invented yet. When breeches started to get shorter, socks got longer--simply to counter the cold. Although not yet a fashion accessory, it was in the Middle Ages that dyes really became de rigeur, so socks were starting to be brighter as a matter of course.
It was at about the year 1000 when knit and woven socks became accepted as luxury items and being developed as such in Europe. As an example, socks were a status symbol for nobility throughout Europe as they were quite expensive to purchase. These were worn high and more like leggings in appearance. “Feet” were not added to them until the 12th century.
Due to the price and limited access to socks, the European working class started knitting their own version of these clothing items. In the 15th century, French and Italian aristocrats were becoming the leaders with fine hand-knit silk stockings. Men discovered that these tight-fitting garments that resemble today’s leggings permitted ease of movement and emphasized shapely legs. And yes, men were the primary wearers.
It wasn’t long before British aristocrats jumped on board and adopted knitted silk stockings. By the year 1490, breeches and hand-knitted hosiery were made into a single garment which we now know as tights. No one was ashamed to show off their tights-clad legs in public; they were more of an outerwear item than nowadays.
At this time in our history of socks, they were made of colorful silk, velvet, and wool and each leg was a different color! Perhaps this partially explains why we love our special-edition patterned socks--which interweave different-colored threads harmoniously--so much. The heritage of the Argyle sock also harks back to Scottish tartans, not only designed to keep the wearer warm but also to speak volumes about a man’s ancestry. A new tartan sock could be created to mix threads marking the marriage of one family with another, or the conquering of territory
By the 16th Century, hosiery was regulated.
Technological Innovation: A Game-Changer
Laws in the 1500s were in place to ensure that no one wore the wrong kind of socks in London, England--yes, they really had the sock police! In those days, you couldn’t get away with wearing bright orange or sunflower yellow socks or a nifty pair of spotty dots! You’d invariably have been locked up--for real!
In 1589, an English clergyman named William Lee helped push the history of socks much further down the evolutionary line. That was when the first knitting machine was invented. The patent wasn’t immediately granted as Queen Elizabeth I had issues with the product.
According to history books, Lee’s machine made wool stockings that were uncomfortable for Her Royal Highness. She also didn’t like the idea that the machine could potentially take jobs away from those who had been hand-knitting stockings before Lee had created the machine. So she nixed it--but financial support came to Lee from a very different source and location.
It was King Henry IV of France who saw what kind of opportunity Lee’s machine presented and the inventor moved to France to open a factory to produce stockings. The knitting loom led to more factories across Europe and saw socks made of wool for the working class and socks made of colored silk for noblemen. You could say the product was now spreading like wildfire, and this marked the beginning of (rudimentary) automated sock manufacturing that would quickly lead to the enormous variety of patterns and colors we have today.
Sock fashion continued to evolve over the next few years. Not only were lengths changing – from mid-calf to knee and eventually up to mid-thigh – but more colors were coming into fashion. Rather than having the tops of the stocking embroidered, decorations, stripes and all kinds of new looks became the norm. Then in the 17th-century, cotton was used for socks. The abundance of this natural material allowed every style of sock and every shade, from the naturals like white, black and beige, through bright colors and deep reds and burgundies.
Enter the Industrial Revolution. This was when progress of all kinds took a major leap. The production of socks was now happening with ease thanks to circular looms. Many hand-knit workers were replaced by machinery that could churn out socks at a much faster rate than the workers could. It also brought wider access to socks of all kinds.
At this time in the history of socks, trousers once again got longer and socks got shorter--and what had formerly been known as a stocking was now being called a sock. But the evolution of this garment did not stop there. In 1938, the invention of nylon introduced a whole new element to many clothing items. A nylon-cotton blend was what the new socks of the day were made out of.
These material blends pushed the manufacturing of these products further into the future. The addition of elastane, or elastic, ended up changing the future of socks once again to where they could be comfortably worn without the need of garters. It also meant that with the right blend of materials, different-sized feet could fit standard-sized socks straight from the factory, as with this pair that fits sizes 8 - 13.
Socks in The Modern Era
Socks of today are not all that different from those of a hundred years ago or so. Well, aside from comfort and style. Socks come in so many different styles and colors that you can easily find the right match for any outfit or occasion. Some styles have even come back as trendy throwbacks from decades ago. An example of this is that the Argyles popular in the 1920s that are again fashionable.
Here is a short review of the many different styles of socks available today.
These are thin and also called a sockette or loafer sock. It is a short sock that fits snugly on your foot but reaches up only to just below the edge of the shoes. The idea is to create a clean look but without you having to wear your loafers barefoot.
Also known as low-rise socks, these socks will cover your feet but will reach up just to your ankles. The hemline should hit the middle of the ankle bone and these socks are designed to be worn with Oxfords and sometimes sneakers.
These socks are somewhat longer than ankle-length socks. They will cover your feet and reach up to just below your calf. Quarter-length socks are a good, comfortable choice to wear with business suits and for any type of formal event or activity.
These are thick and ribbed at the cuff. They will cover your feet and have a height that is between six and eight inches. Crew length socks will keep your feet warm and can be worn with various shoes, but are particularly comfortable when worn with hiking boots for outdoor activities.
These socks cover your feet and will reach to just a few inches below the knee. They are also known as tall socks or trouser socks and come in many patterns for both men and women. Designed to keep your feet warm, these socks can be worn with various types of shoes.
Calf length socks cover your feet and reach up to just below the knee. They are the choice of sports enthusiasts as the length can protect the lower leg from any harm. Women wear these socks usually in the cooler months underneath winter or fur boots that are tall and cover the ankle and calf.
These also make the perfect smart groomsmen’s socks when a kilt is worn, or for formal wear, and these are often available in great boxes and with bespoke labeling if you buy from an upmarket retailer.
These are another type of sock that is mostly aimed at the female market. Women choose thigh-high socks as they have seductive undertones while also being super warm for winter--ideal for long boots. They are typically worn with skirts and dresses.
The history of socks is quite an interesting one, isn’t it?
Who knew that something created by wearing animal skins or pelts and plant life would end up filling our sock drawers at home? Thanks to the invention of the knitting machine, nylon and elastic, socks have evolved into a comfortable everyday piece of clothing we don’t normally think about until we need a matching pair to go with our outfit.
And when you think about it, it is rather cool how socks came into being after becoming stockings and leggings over time. Thankfully, socks are no longer considered something that only the rich can afford. If you need a pair, you can find them just about anywhere including online! Talk about progress and the march of time...