Over its history, the sock’s function has remained virtually unchanged. From its genesis as a gathering of animal skins tied at the ankle to the tight-knit fit of today, the sock has been and remains, in its most essential state, a form of protection. Initially the sock served as a guard against the cold and other harsh weather conditions. Over time, the design expanded from focusing not just external conditions, but also working to balance internal, bodily conditions. Most notably, modern socks will often absorb some of the high volume of sweat produced by the feet on a given day.
This pair of socks, the oldest that have been found, date back to somewhere between 300 and 500 CE.
In contrast to this functional stability (or stagnancy, depending on your viewpoint), the sock’s material identity has varied greatly over the course of its existence. The earliest sock as we might recognize it dates from some time between 300 and 500 CE. It was fabricated through a process that predates both knitting and crochet, and cut off above the ankle. In Medieval times, socks were cut from woven cloth and varied in size largely in relation to pant length; as breeches rose closer to the knee, so too did socks extend further up the leg. The fabrication of the sock shifted in the 1500s, when the relative mobility and comfort of the knitted silk sock was discovered. The 1600s brought the invention of the knitting machine, which created steep, but not entirely insurmountable competition for the hand-knit industry. Not until the 1800s did automation eclipse individual craftsmen. The final revolution of production can with the advent of nylon in 1938. Socks to that point had been made of silk, cotton, or wool. Nylon inspired designers to begin blending fabrics, a practice which continues to this day.
Beyond fabrication, the material sock has also become a fashion signifier. Beginning around 1000 CE, socks became a symbol of wealth and nobility, with more decorative designs developing from this desire to display one’s own sense of luxury. In the 1600s, the term “clock” was formalized to mean any such ornaments around the ankle of the sock. From this point forward, the styling of the sock varied greatly. While the utilitarian sock remained in neutral tones with relatively straightforward, woolen construction, the sock of luxury began to experiment with ornamentation in the form of silk materials, additional fabric, and bright colors. From this, socks with more intricate patterns also developed, but always maintained a certain standardization. Only through continued experimentation did the sock find itself in a present-day, and yet unseen, form of fashion: the novelty sock.
The novelty sock takes the patterned sock and pushes it one step further.
The novelty sock ranges from one featuring a slightly abstract pattern to one printed with a pop-art-esque image to a full recreation of a famous piece of art. The novelty sock calls attention to itself as not just an accessory, but a piece of an outfit that speaks with its own voice. The earliest articles citing the novelty sock as a trend appear mid-2013, but debate has raged on since then. In January 2016, Vogue published an article titled “Novelty Socks Are Fashion’s Newest Necessity for 2016,” but just two months later, the Wall Street Journal made its case for “Why Crazy Patterned Socks Are Yesterday’s Trend.” Statement socks (of now increasing length) have appeared in several 2017 trend lists. If agreement cannot be reached on the placed of the novelty sock in fashion, the sock that makes a statement has certainly escaped the label of “fad,” and is instead a “trend.”
Truly anything is possible with the design of the sock now that this seemingly final boundary has been breached.