Not all dress socks are created equal and in this article, we’ll explain why. We’ll touch on the origin of socks, how socks are made and why men wear dress socks.
We’ll also dive deep into what makes an excellent pair of dress socks, providing expertise to assist you in restocking your sock drawer.
A Brief Origin of Socks
Whether to keep feet warm or to manage sweat, socks were born out of necessity. Historical records of socks exist going all the way back to Ancient Greece in the 8th century BC. In these earliest days, socks took the form of the materials available to people at that time: animal skins and animal hair.
According to Wikipedia, the modern English word sock is derived from the Old English word socc, meaning “light slipper”. This comes from the Latin soccus, a term to describe a “light, low-heeled shoe” worn by Roman comic actors, and deriving from the Ancient Greek word sykchos.
Socks are meant to absorb perspiration, keep our feet cool or warm and can also serve as a fashion accessory. Today there are a myriad of sock styles and materials available from natural and synthetic fibers.
While manufacturing processes have changed dramatically throughout the centuries, animal hair — namely merino wool — is still one of the most popular materials used to produce socks. Nowadays the wool is cleaned, processed and spun onto cones, but the first step is still shearing the hair off of sheep.
Plant-based materials, including silk and cotton, have long been popular materials in sock production, but the industry’s biggest innovation occurred in 1935 when DuPont invented nylon. This marked the beginning of synthetic, or man made, fibers that would expand to include polyester, rayon, spandex and others.
Socks knit primarily with synthetic fibers do not breathe or offer the level of comfort found in natural fibers, typically leaving the wearer feeling uncomfortable. The benefit of these synthetic fibers is that they are generally tough and hard to wear out.
Why Wear Dress Socks?
Dress socks have emerged as a specialized category in hosiery, designed to meet the unique needs of dress shoes. Dress shoes are intended to fit more snugly and thus require a thinner sock; a thick sock worn with this type of shoe would not only be uncomfortable but would also bunch at the ankle and distort the drape of the wearer’s trousers.
What Makes a Great Dress Sock?
You know why dress socks are important, but what makes a high-quality dress sock?
Let’s find out.
A great pair of dress socks requires a great blend of materials. As alluded to above, natural fibers such as wool and cotton are extremely comfortable while synthetic fibers such as nylon can improve fit and add durability. At Boardroom Socks, we believe combining these natural and synthetic fibers will result in the optimal dress sock.
To ensure that the sock is comfortable, the natural yarn should constitute the majority of the sock. For dress socks, the natural fibers are typically either merino wool or pima cotton, both of which have unique benefits.
Merino wool is considered the optimal choice as it holds its color, is durable and breathes to keep your feet dry and comfortable throughout the workday. A well-made merino wool dress sock is made using pre-treated or “superwash” wool that is colorfast and shrink-resistant.
Pima cotton is another popular choice for natural yarn and is known for its buttery-soft texture. At Boardroom Socks, we use supima cotton which is an extra long staple cotton grown in the southwestern United States. Using this yarn enables us to produce exceptionally comfortable and durable pima cotton dress socks.
The Bottom Line
Whether the sock is constructed with merino wool or pima cotton, it should also contain a percentage of nylon. The addition of nylon enables the sock to conform to your foot while also greatly improving the sock’s durability. The sock should also be finished with a small amount of spandex in the cuff, ensuring that it stays up throughout the day.
Ultimately, when shopping for a great pair of dress socks, be sure to closely evaluate the sock’s contents. In general, you want to avoid polyester, rayon, acrylic and socks that are predominantly made with nylon.
As previously mentioned, dress socks must be thinner than traditional socks so that they can be comfortably worn with dress shoes; however, they can be found in a variety of thicknesses.
The primary determinant of thickness is the number of needles used in the knitting machine. The higher the needle count, the thinner the sock and the thinner the sock, the faster it will wear out.
At Boardroom Socks, we knit our socks using a slightly lower needle count machine than most European manufacturers. This produces a sock that is slightly thicker, yet much more durable and still incredibly comfortable.
Another important design feature found in quality dress socks is a reinforced heel and toe. These areas typically wear out first in a sock, so adding an additional layer of yarn here can greatly extend the life of the socks. High quality dress socks do not have a cushioned sole; this is usually found in casual or athletic socks.
The toe seam of well-made dress socks should be minimal or there should be no seam at all. To produce a “seamless” toe, the socks must be seamed either by hand or by an advanced knitting machine that automatically closes the toe. A flat toe seam eliminates irritation on the wearer’s toes and creates a comfortable, well-fitting sock.
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The Do’s and Don’ts of Dress Socks
You learned what makes a great dress sock, but what are some of the rules to wearing dress socks?
Here are the do’s and don’ts you’ll want to keep in mind.
Do: Wear The Right Shoes
Dress socks are knit with fine count, or lightweight, yarn. In addition to the needle count of the machine, this is what produces the thinness of dress socks and dictates the type of footwear you need for dress socks.
You should only wear dress shoes, loafers or other lightweight shoes with dress socks. Heavy soled shoes such as boots produce more friction and are hard on dress socks, which can lead to holes and premature wear. Heavy soled shoes will also pull the sock down.
Do: Wear Properly-Fitting Shoes
Not only can the wrong type of shoes lead to premature wear in dress socks, but wearing the wrong size shoe can be equally destructive on quality hosiery. Loose-fitting shoes, a common issue with loafers, cause excessive rubbing on the heel. This leads to pilling, which ultimately becomes a hole.
Although dress socks are not delicate, you need to keep a few basic care instructions in mind.
Do: Use A Laundry Bag
When laundering dress socks, you may have found they begin to pill or pick up a lot of lint in the washer and dryer. You can help prevent those things from happening by washing and drying your socks in a laundry bag.
The bag keeps your socks from rubbing against abrasive items and also eliminates direct contact with items that may have lint.
Don’t: Avoid High Heat
First and foremost, avoid high heat during the laundering process. Typically the natural yarn – wool or cotton – is preshrunk, but nylon and spandex are sensitive to heat. High temperatures will cause the socks to lose their shape and will quickly erode the spandex’s elasticity.
Over time, this will cause the socks to sag. We recommend either air drying your dress socks or tumble drying them on low heat.
Don’t: Never Wash or Dry Your Dress Socks with Towels
Towels are notorious for shedding lint through the washing and drying processes. Once this lint clings to your socks, it is virtually impossible to remove and can quickly ruin an otherwise perfect pair of dress socks. In no case should you ever wash or dry your socks with towels.
Don’t: Steer Clear of Synthetics
Before purchasing your next pair of dress socks, be sure to thoroughly examine the contents. Socks knit primarily with synthetic yarns such as polyester, nylon and rayon will be hot and uncomfortable, causing your feet to sweat.
Quick note: If you’re enjoying this article, you might like this guide on Best Men’s No Show Socks too.
Matching Your Socks, Shoes and Trousers
While trends in menswear come and go, the simplest rule for coordinating your socks is to match them with your pants. This foolproof methodology will ensure you are tastefully dressed, no matter the occasion.
Below, we’ve put together a handful of examples on ways you can combine socks, shoes and trousers.
When in Doubt, Keep it Simple
First, to put your best foot forward, always assess the environment before assembling your outfit. Dressing appropriately for the occasion is half the battle.
Generally speaking (as mentioned above), the rule of thumb is to match your dress socks with your trousers. This creates a seamless transition between your leg and your trousers, plus you will appear taller.
This also avoids drawing attention to any one piece of your ensemble, allowing more other aspects of your outfit to shine, such as tailoring or fit. When in doubt, keep this in mind for a foolproof look.
Go Monochromatic for a Powerful Look
A monochromatic ensemble, the go-to look for executives and politicians, projects confidence and power. A dark suit with matching dark dress socks like navy is extremely tasteful and sure to impress. Opting instead for a funky pair of socks would quickly deflate the strength of this outfit.
Add A Splash of Color
On the other hand, for men who prefer a pop of color — pastels, particularly pink, look great with charcoal gray. For example, a pink dotted pattern sock mixed with dark gray pairs wonderfully with the pink tie.
Coordinating the color from the pattern with other areas of your outfit, such as your tie or pocket square, can be a great way to pull together an ensemble.
Tastefully Mix and Match
While the go-to rules of menswear dictate that a gentleman should match his socks and trousers, there are plenty of colors that you can tastefully combine. For example, grey, navy and olive all work very well together and are considered classic colors in menswear.
You’re the Captain of Your Own Ship
Keep in mind that rules are meant to be broken. Pairing men’s clothes is an art, so don’t be afraid to add your own personal touch.
A great pair of dress socks will not only keep you comfortable throughout the day, but will also serve as a key component of a sharp outfit. We hope that you have found this article to be informative and interesting.
If you’re ready to apply your newly-found hosiery expertise and do some dress sock shopping, we invite you to stop by Boardroom Socks.
Nathan James is the President of Boardroom Socks, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of fine men’s socks. He is passionate about supporting local textile traditions and is committed to American manufacturing. Outside the office, he can be found fishing and exploring the outdoors.
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