Human feet sweat heavily, and a covering of cloth, hair, or hide helps absorb that sweat and draw it out toward the air, where it can evaporate.
This sweating can also damage the more expensive outer footwear, thus socks serve the purpose of extending the life of our shoes.
That was the goal back when humans first started tying animal skins around their feet in bundles, and it's still a practical consideration today.
A good sock should not just absorb sweat but also allow it to distribute perspiration through the material toward the outer surface (a process called "wicking").
This is important so that the foot stays dry and sweat evaporates before smell-producing bacteria have a chance to start feeding on it.
To fit in with a contemporary, well-dressed look, however, especially at business-appropriate levels of formality, a good sock needs a little more than just function.
The following are not just desirable sock qualities, but essential ones.
Sock Wicking - As described above, socks should "wick" moisture away from the foot, toward the exterior surface of the sock.
Sock Padding - The sock should cushion the foot from impact with the ground, and prevent the skin from rubbing against the inside of shoes.
Snug Sock Fit - A loose sock bunches, which is unsightly, and rubs, which can cause blister. A good sock should pull snug against the skin from top to toe.
Slim Sock Fit - Dress shoes also tend to be fitted snugly, meaning you can't cram a big, bulky sock into one. Dress socks should be as thin as comfort permits, both to fit in shoes and to avoid looking bulky around the ankle or distorting the trouser cuff.
Appropriate Sock Color - For a while now the default dress sock has been black, but there are several options for the sharp dresser. A good sock should fit neatly and unobtrusively into its outfit in most cases — and stand out boldly and proudly in the less-frequent cases where that's the goal.
Needless to say, that's a long list of sweet notes.
Very few socks manage to hit every single one. If you find a brand that fills all five key needs for you, treasure it and buy a lot of back stock.
Dress Sock Basics: Color, Length, and Material
So now you know what the perfect dress sock should look and feel like. Now let's talk about some of the ways socks get there.
Forget the conventional wisdom of suburban dads. Black isn't the automatic go-to dress sock color, although it's usually an acceptable one.
Savvy dressers have a whole range of options, depending on how much contrast they want in their outfit.
The most basic, play-it-safe, grain-of-salt rule for socks is this: when in doubt, match the color of the sock to the color of the trouser leg.
That means if you're wearing charcoal gray trousers, a charcoal gray sock is best. Light gray trousers, light gray sock. Khakis, well, you get the idea — throw on some light tan socks to go with those babies.
You may have noticed that black socks don't actually meet that standard very often, except for men who wear a lot of pure black pants.
The idea of black dress socks evolved from an easier but less-attractive rule: matching the color of the sock to the color of the shoe, which for most men in business dress is black.
That works, in a pinch. It's not awful. But it's not great, either. It makes the feet look big and draws attention to your ankles any time the trouser cuff rides up.
It also shaves some perceived height off your body, by making your legs look shorter, which might be acceptable for very tall men but isn't particularly desirable for anyone.
So what are the alternatives?
The most common we mentioned above: match the sock to the trouser leg. But daring dressers can take it a notch further with a contrasting sock, so long as the contrast looks deliberate.
That's a very important caveat. White gym socks and gray sharkskin trousers isn't going to look deliberate; it's going to look like you're insane.
But those same gray trousers with a pair of bright red socks that just so happen to have a matching gray diamond pattern (argyle or a close cousin, say) running through them? Now we're talking.
If you go for bright socks, go for ones that are in a comfortably contrasting color, or that have a pattern that references colors elsewhere in your outfit (your pocket square, for example), or both.
Even then you'll want to save it for social rather than business occasions, unless you're in a relaxed or fashion-forward industry like the tech sector.
For conventional business dress, socks that match the trousers are still best, followed by socks that match the shoes.
For situations where a little more playfulness is permissible, socks that match the trousers are still fine, but carefully-selected contrasting socks are an acceptable alternative.
Socks, as you may recall, sometimes go by their more archaic name: hose or hosiery.
That comes from the days when exposed skin was considered not just unsightly but downright scandalous.
Tastes have relaxed quite a bit — but not so far that anyone wants to see a scraggly bit of hair-covered ankle sticking out between the top of the sock and the cuff of the trousers.
A good sock for business dress and other high-formality purposes should come at least midway up the calf. All the way to the lower edge of the knee is great, if you find that comfortable, but at least halfway up the calf should be your minimum.
Much lower than that and certain positions (one foot flat while seated with the other slung up and across the knee, for example) risk exposing a flash of skin that will clash with your sock and your trousers, looking very unsightly indeed.
Since the cost of manufacturing socks comes mostly from the material, length is where a lot of brands look to save. You'll end up with a lot of "calf" socks that really only come up to the top of the ankle, or maybe an inch beyond if you're lucky. Save those lengths for your light, summertime socks worn with casual trousers, and hunt around until you find proper over-the-calf socks for dress occasions.
Specialized menswear stores and the more upscale department store sections are more likely to fit your needs here than Target, Walmart, and other big-box retailers.
Last but by no means least, the stuff the sock is actually made out of has a huge impact on its performance.
Common base materials include cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, and a whole range of other synthetics, some trademarked and others known simply by their chemical names.
Cotton on its own is absorbent, which is good for soaking sweat off the skin, but it doesn't wick moisture towards its surface and it doesn't allow wetness to evaporate quickly.
That makes it good for short periods of high sweat intensity, like a quick cardio workout, but problematic for a full day's wear.
Wool, unlike cotton, breathes easily and lets wetness evaporate, and it offers much more warmth in cold conditions.
It's also bulky, however, and like cotton lacks specific wicking properties for speeding moisture away from the body.
Synthetics have been the answer for most manufacturers. Acrylic, olefin, polyester, and polyethylene can all be shaped into fibers that encourage wicking.
On their own, these materials are thin and provide little cushioning or snugness, but they can be blended with thicker and stretchier materials to make an excellent sock.
So what's the ideal sock material?
There is no one right answer, and a lot of companies will use their own trademarked blend, the exact properties of which are secret. But a good dress sock might look something like this:
- Primarily natural material - wool for warmth, or cotton for warm-weather absorbency and light weight.
- Woven with wicking material - some acrylic, olefin, or similar material in the weave will keep the foot dryer than a 100% natural sock.
- Elasticized - a cuff or ribbing or both made from stretchy material will help keep the sock snug on the foot and keep it from sagging on the leg.
Since those considerations are more associated with outdoor sports and active wear than business dress, many business wear options will be simple 100% cotton or wool.
If those are your only options, cotton will be more comfortable in hot weather and wool in cold, but it will likely be worth your while to go a little further afield and find a blended sock in the dress color you need.
Size and Fit
A final consideration is the fit of the sock on the foot itself, not just its height on the leg.
Most socks are not sized like shoes (although at the very upper end of options you will find some individually sized socks, and even the opportunity to have them custom made).
Brands vary, but generally speaking an off-the-rack "Medium" sock will fit up to about a size 12 in American shoe sizes. Men at or above that size will want a "Large," or if possible a "Big and Tall" for men with long or wide feet.
Keep both the thickness of the sock and the shoe you're going to wear it with in mind when shopping.