Most everyone knows the old proverb: ‘When you want to know if a man is well dressed, look down.’ This saying is usually meant to refer to shoes, but shoes are only one element of the complex equation of what makes a well dressed man.
There’s an interesting chapter in G. Bruce Boyer’s True Style called « The shoe-hosiery-trouser nexus ». While this section of the book addresses essential aspects of the topic of socks, it left me thinking there’s even more to say on the matter (which by the way, is one of the strengths of Boyer’s book — leaving you wanting for more and providing guidance which inspires you to question your own views on the subject). This nexus is important when learning about menswear, even if visually, interest in men’s style usually comes first on the heels of the jacket-shirt-tie equation.
Most articles on the subject of socks are about rules and tips. These texts often start with the idea that socks should either look up or down, matching trousers or shoes. But in today’s menswear, there are no rules to obey anymore.
Unless you find yourself in a formal context which dictates strict sartorial sobriety, today, social death is no longer to be feared–which doesn’t mean ‘the absence of rules to enforce’ entails total anarchy. Instead of social rules, the paradigm to consider nowadays are aesthetic preferences and personal style.
Choosing one’s socks is a case of stylistic strategy. Contrast or harmony are the two main paths from which we may choose.
The obvious possibility, which is one of utter sobriety (and doesn’t necessarily imply dullness or sternness) is to match your socks with your trousers and/or your shoes. Navy trousers and navy socks look good, whatever the shoes may be. The same trousers-sock or shoe-sock application goes for grey on grey and brown on brown.
Using this conservative formula can even look sharp, depending on the rest of the outfit. Yet, you might get tired of such a default choice if you have to choose the same non-combination each day.
This approach is an especially interesting option whenever your shoes are quite noticeable.
A variation of the above approach is to choose different tones of the same colour such as three different blues or three different greys for trousers, socks and shoes. It’s a nice, subtle approach which requires a light touch, but also poses the risk of becoming boring.
Another possibility is to select a sock color that will harmonize with trousers and shoes (without being the same colour as either). Grey trousers, purple socks and brown shoes will subtly harmonize, without stylistic shock–except this time we’re no longer in the safe zone of continuity. In this area, you want to avoid jarring tones, which means the result cannot be foreseen since the hues and nuances of each fabric vary, and so you must give different combinations a try in order to visually appraise your decision.
The flashy solid sock strategy choice is a radical departure from the matching strategy. Flashy solid socks bring a loud, glaring contrast to any combination and goes beyond blending colors. Shock-color socks really stand on their own as a statement. By separating trousers and shoes, the socks become a focal point — even distracting from the torso.
It is not just the red sock that creates such a strong effect, but any sharply contrasting colour. Navy trousers and bright blue socks will create the same kind of opposition. Same goes for yellow, pink, green…
There’s a Yiddish proverb saying that when you hesitate between two solutions… you should choose the third one.
Matching or constrasting? My personal favourite strategy, inspired by pocket squares possibilities, is to use the matching strategy but use patterns to break uniformity.
Stripes, houndstooth and herringbone enable us to use a color that matches or blends as well as a new color, which adds contrast and liveliness. This decision is a way to get the best of both worlds–matching and contrasting simultaneously.
The inventiveness of Bresciani socks, among other brands, has been helpful when choosing this approach. For instance brown and blue stripes (“vanisées” socks) enable one to match with both navy trousers and brown shoes while showing sophistication and contrast.
Matching, harmonizing, contrasting and blending are part of what seems like an infinite palette of choices. Rules don’t apply here. The ability to choose well is more about developing personal flair than anything else.
Of course, like every other aspect of an outfit, the trousers-sock-shoe nexus is a multi-factor question. Texture is also an important one: tweed, flannel, linen, cotton, wool, leather, suede can inspire other types of associations.
Also, the ankle nexus is not isolated. The rest of the outfit is obviously connected and you can only decide what socks to wear according to what’s going on upstairs.
Of course trousers and shoes are not always solid and include patterns like Prince of Wales or window-pane trousers —not to mention two-tone shoes or colourful patinas. Dealing with patterns or color variations will make sock choices more complicated and can call for a little restraint, lest the combination becomes too busy.
But you can decide whether the ankle will be a focus of your ensemble or not, and whether you want to balance a busy outfit with more low-key socks or use socks which match the tie or shirt…there are no limits to the imagination.
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– For more inspiration, visit the famous giant thread Rock Your Socks on the Style Forum (1520 pages since 2008)
– For a large choice of quality socks visit our friends at Mes Chaussettes Rouges
– John Slamson Tumblr