No other item of clothing can show you up more. Wear odd socks and you might as well declare to the world that you are single, recently divorced or generally confused by life. Most clever men now know that women look at a man’s shoes as a clue to his true character and have adapted accordingly. And yet. There they might be, doing all other sartorial things correctly: Ozwald Boateng suit, Oliver Sweeney shoes. Marvellous. But somewhere along the line he will always think, “Oh, these old socks will do,” thus, in one fell swoop, exposing his true British character – always one hurdle short of the gold medal.
How often have I been offended by the sight of an otherwise gloriously dressed man on the train into work, sitting cross-legged and displaying socks of the wrong shade in the wrong gauge for the occasion. Northern European men appear frightened of socks that aren’t black, grey or white, while thin socks frighten them further.
Indeed, not wearing socks causes such a commotion in this country that it is always worthy of note. If ever a man is interviewed by the press and dares to wear his shoes without socks, it is considered too hot a fact to leave out. (It invariably means he is a designer or an architect; I have yet to spot one uncovered male ankle in parliament but perhaps now that it’s on its summer break, off-duty MPs may be tempted – let’s keep a look out).
Italian men, however, eschew socks with relish come the spring. But they also favour slip-on shoes for the same reason: to a philanderer, the fewer clothes you have to take off and undo, the easier it is to dress in a hurry.
In this country, gentlemen still seem to have Victorian hang-ups about showing their ankles. In the sun, a man may bare his chest, shoulders and, often inadvertently, his bottom too. But at all costs, socks must be hung on to even, I’ve heard, in bed. They are often the first things a man will put on in the morning and the last to be removed. Are an Englishman’s feet so sacred?
Clearly yes, and the message comes from on high. When the Queen and Prince Philip visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, five years ago they did not, like everyone else, go barefoot. No, they wore white socks. No less an institution than Eton uses socks as a branding system: there are 130 colours of sports sock alone according to whether you are good at sports and which game you play. No chance of going sans socks there – however would you be identified?
Albert Einstein, being the good German-Swiss-American he was, refused to wear socks altogether. Frustrated by their lack of robustness – his big toe would puncture holes in them – he couldn’t be bothered. If nothing else, it goes to show that wearing socks is not essential to win the Nobel Physics Prize.
Just as the second world war was breaking out, British Vogue took a look at what “21st-century man” might wear. On his feet, it predicted, he would wear disposable socks. This will never happen. We may one day embrace the euro, and learn to like the Germans, but we will never throw our socks away.
First published in The Guardian.