You might find it hard to believe, but socks are probably the oldest type of clothing that is still in use today. Socks have been around since the Stone Ages, long before the concept of trousers or t-shirts existed. Nowadays, it seems to be the most overlooked part of an outfit, sometimes because people don’t know how to wear colourful socks. This may be the case today, but socks have had a pretty wild ride throughout history. They weren’t always so easy to come by and, for a long time, they were worn only by nobility. At one point in time London even had its own ‘sock police’. Makes you appreciate those battered old socks you have laying around a bit more, doesn’t it? Without further ado, I present to you the exciting sock history.
Sock History – The Beginnings
Going back to the Stone Ages, cca. 5000 BC, the first ‘socks’ that our cavemen ancestors wore probably looked nothing like what we have today. There aren’t any socks left over from that time but we have some clues as to what they might have looked like from cave paintings and archeological finds. It seems like these rudimentary socks were made from animal skins and pelts tied around the ankle.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the 8th century BC when socks are first mentioned in writing by the Greek poet Hesiod. In his poem, “Works and Days”, Hesiod mentions ‘piloi’, a type of sock made from matted animal hair worn under sandals.
Later on, the Romans would wrap their feet in strips of leather or woven fabric. Around the 2nd century AD they started sewing the pieces of fabric together and making fitted socks. They called these ‘udones’ and they are the first socks to resemble what we are wearing today.
The first woollen socks to be discovered were unearthed at Vindolanda in Northumbria and they date back to the 2nd century AD. They are a child-sized pair made from woven wool cloth meant to protect against the rough British weather. Roman tablets found at the site even include the instruction to “send more socks”.
Also around that time, the first knit socks were being made in Ancient Egypt. The earliest known surviving pair of knitted socks, made with a technique called naalbinding, dates from 300 – 500 AD and was found at Oxyrhynchus on the Nile in Egypt. The socks feature split toes and are designed to be worn with sandals.
By the 5th century AD, holy people of Europe would wear socks called ‘puttees’ which symbolized purity.
Left: A child’s woollen sock dating back to the 2nd century AD found at Vindolanda
Right: Knit socks from cca. 500 AD found in an Ancient Egyptian tomb
Sock History – The Luxury
During the Middle Ages, the length of trousers was extended and the sock became a tight brightly-coloured cloth covering the lower part of the leg. Since socks didn’t have an elastic band, garters were placed over the top of the stockings to prevent them from falling down. When breeches became shorter, socks began to get longer (and more expensive). By the year 1000, knit and woven socks had become a status symbol of the nobility throughout much of Europe. They were initially bearing more of a resemblance to leggings and it wasn’t until the 12th century that feet were added to them.
Though Europe’s working people were certainly knitting their own homespun socks and stockings by the end of the 12th century, the hosiery of noblemen was vastly superior. Their socks were generally made of woven cloth of higher quality with a back seam and bias cut. By the 15th century, the French and Italian aristocracies led the way with their fine hand-knit silk stockings. Men found that the stretchy silk fabric had two benefits: ease of movement and an ability to show off a shapely leg. Aristocratic Britons were soon following their European neighbours, and knitted silk stockings became the rage among the British fashionable elite. Around 1490, breeches and hand knitted hosiery were joined together to become one garment, which would later be known as tights. These were made of colourful silk, wool and velvet, with each leg a different colour.
By the 16th century, hosiery, like other pieces of clothing, was strictly regulated through stringent laws. In 1566, the City of London employed surveillance techniques to ensure that nobody was wearing the wrong kind of socks anywhere in the capital. The laws were enforced by the sock police – four persons who were positioned twice a day at the gates of London, checking the legs of those entering or leaving for improper hosiery.
In 1589, the first knitting machine was invented by William Lee, an English clergyman. After receiving a pair of black stockings from William, Queen Elizabeth I ultimately declined to grant him a patent for his invention. She complained that his machine made wool stockings that were far too coarse for royal ankles. She didn’t like the feel of the stockings or their crude form and she was afraid that the machine would take away jobs from her people.
However, France’s King Henri IV saw the opportunity William’s invention provided and offered him financial support. The inventor moved to Rouen where he built a stocking factory. Before long, the French spread the knitting loom throughout Europe. Socks made for the lower classes used wool, while those made for noblemen were made of coloured silk. After the Industrial Revolution socks became easier and cheaper to produce, spreading their appeal across European society. Many of the principles William Lee developed can still be found in modern textile machinery today.
Left: European nobleman’s stockings in the mid 1500’s (the top is tied up when worn)
Right: Silk tights worn by a nobleman in the early 17th century
Sock History – Modern Times
Over the next couple of years, sock fashion continued to change dictating different lengths (from mid-calf to knee to mid-thigh). Rather than just sticking to embroidery at the top, sock fashion expanded to include even more colours, decorations or stripes. In the late 17th century cotton became a popular choice for many garments including socks. As trousers became longer and socks became shorter, the term ‘socks’ actually started being used to refer to what was previously known as stockings.
In pictures: Sock fashion at the beginning of the 20th century
The next revolution in sock-making came with the invention of nylon in 1938. The strength and elasticity of socks made from cotton-nylon blends led to a natural step forward in manufacturing. This blend is even used today, even in our Shosett socks, which use a type of nylon called polyamide. Later on, elastane was added to the blend to give socks extra flexibility and make them fit a wider range of wearers.
In terms of sock styles, fashion has seen a few models come and go, often to come back again after a few years. Argyle patterns, which have been hugely popular in the 1920s are making a comeback in men’s fashion. With manufacturing advances, cotton can be more accurately dyed which makes for bolder and more colourful socks. While striped socks are and will always be a popular choice for men and women, patterned socks with all kinds of crazy designs (like avocado socks) are becoming the latest fashion trend.