Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a warm and leisurely environment year-round, chances are that you wear socks at least part of the time. They keep your feet warm and dry, and help protect them from chafing. If you’re like most men, you have a drawer full of assorted socks from which you quickly pick out a pair in the morning without too much thought. But the story of socks is older and more interesting than any one man’s collection might indicate.
Going back to the Stone Age, the prototypical “socks” worn by our cave-dwelling ancestors were likely animal skins tied around their ankles. By the 8th century B.C., the Greeks were wearing socks made from matted animal hairs and were called piloi. The Romans wrapped their feet in strips of leather or woven fabric, and by the 2nd century A.D. were wearing udones, which were sewn from woven fabric and pulled over the foot. The earliest known knit socks have been discovered in Coptic Egyptian tombs dating from the 3rd-6th centuries A.D. By 1000 AD, woven and knit socks had become a status symbol of the nobility throughout much of Europe. Known as leggings, it wasn’t until the 12th century that feet were added to them.
In the 16th century the invention of the knitting machine made tighter woven hose possible. It also made socks more accessible, being made mostly of wool for the common people, and silk for the noble classes. Up until then, men had been wearing knee-length stockings that were tied at the top and often embroidered. Tighter weaves made it possible to dispense with ties, and two-legged hose gave way to a one-piece style that extended to the crotch. This was because men’s tunics and breeches both had shortened, exposing much more of the leg. These “stockings” were originally worn just by men, and are seen in depictions of Henry VIII and the like. (Queen Elizabeth popularized them for women starting in 1560.)
Over the next couple of centuries, socks kept changing in lengths, as fashion dictated, anywhere from mid-calf to knee to mid-thigh. Rather than just the embroidery at the top, different colors, decorations, or stripes were often employed overall. Swiss and German gentlemen wore garments with slashes to reveal their brightly colored hose, while Spanish gentlemen of means wore knitted silk stockings with embroidered emblems. Cotton came into wide use in the late 17th century, becoming a popular choice for socks. Note that up until this time, men’s hose were actually referred to as “stockings.” It was only when pant lengths grew longer that hose grew shorter, and the term “socks” came into use.