The joy of socks

The joy of socks

For Séamas O’Reilly a life lived in good socks is a life of comfort, beauty – and strange internet searches

Séamas O’Reilly
Sun 28 Oct 2018 07.00 GMT

Seamus Heaney was a schoolboy when he first encountered TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, a poem he described as moving him like nothing he’d ever before experienced. “What happened as I read,” he wrote in the Boston Review of 3 October 1989, “was the equivalent of what happens in an otherwise warm and well-wrapped body once a cold wind gets at the ankles.” Reading his words, I was struck, as always, by Heaney’s economy of description, his tripwire acuity for rendering ineffable sensations plain and alive. Unlike him, however, I was clearly used to wearing much, much better socks.

The chill of an ankle wouldn’t, for me, have delivered a revelatory moment or a frisson of glee, but a personal failing, and one I would never allow to recur. I read his words at the self-same Derry school in which his encounter with Eliot’s classic took place, an institution in which I was a pupil 40 years later. Garbed in that same black, blue and grey uniform, I can report I felt no such pedal chill. Then, as now, I rejected the false choice between appreciating the wonder of language and the blissful comfort of thermally padded, Argyle-pattern sock ware.
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Poets can teach us a great many lessons – I’d often noticed, for example, how good they were at saying that this one thing was very like this other, different and unexpected, thing – but they are not necessarily to be relied upon for sartorial advice. For at that age, and ever since, I was steadfastly committed to the finer socks of life.

I’ve always taken a great deal of joy in, and care over, my socks and, upon writing this piece, realise it would be convenient if there were a more stirring and serious reason for this. “Ah, those,” I’d say, rakishly flashing a shin-high stretch of fabric before emptying my pipe into the fire with a rugged, faraway look. “Let’s just say that six weeks in the Hindu Kush with nothing but hosiery for company – well, it changes a man.”

I’m astonished so few others take as much enjoyment from something we literally all wear every single day of our lives
In reality, my go-to responses are, “I have feet,” and “We live on a cold, wet island,” which seem to me such perfectly sufficient answers I’m astonished so few others take as much enjoyment from something we all wear every single day of our lives. The average person’s interest in socks seldom rises above the functional, and sometimes meets not even that meagre hurdle. They are in that rare bracket of clothing for which any deviation from black or white colouring results in them being considered, with some chagrin, “noticeable” – as if the usual object of clothing should be constant, vigilant modesty, lest the elders of the church drown you come the next harvest.

Like bow ties or suspenders, the patterned or colourful sock is a much-maligned fashion statement, often associated with those who affect a wacky disposition – Colin Hunt types who make up for their lack of personality with eye-catching vestments. In the words of Theresa May after that eight-day media-training course in 2016 that removed the last dregs of life from her tattered goat’s heart, let me be very clear. No one laments the novelty sock more than me, not just as a lover of the form, but also as a brother, a son, a husband and a workmate; someone for whom such items are not only a tedious affront to the good name of socks, but a near-ubiquitous gifting option. “There she is,” I say, in delight, “Mrs Brown and her boys, too. I can wear them on my feet now, how wonderful.” It’s an occupational hazard for my people, our niche interest will be painfully and innocently misinterpreted by those who are simply trying to help, much like that guy at work who “heard you were into comedy”, and still WhatsApps you Jonathan Pie videos many years after you’ve moved jobs.

It’s unclear for me why socks are singled out in this manner. Why have we decreed that even old ladies can wear rainbow swatch dresses, brooches or sun hats, yet socks should be such an afterthought? Would it not be better, these aesthetes imply, if the government printed out two thin rolls of cotton – one white, one black – and distributed 17 lifetime pairs to everyone, so we need never consider such choices again.

I counter it would not, and humbly submit the following for your consideration.
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Buttoned up: Folk fraction socks
Buttoned up: Folk fraction socks
Good, or indeed beautiful, socks need not be outlandish. For those who prefer a studied blankness, these are hard to beat. Folk trades in designs toward the warmer end of the plain gradient, and these British-owned, Portuguese-made Fraction Socks in ecru/sulphur mix (£20) are a beautifully understated case in point. Folk’s lines are commonly modelled by glum young people who look like they have the flu, so the comparative festivity of these is a delight. These are sincere, almost rustic socks, the type a lecturer might wear on his first date since ending things with that promising student once it became clear they were both writing terrible, terrible novels about their affair. They also come with a preposterous little button at the ankle point, which is the sort of confoundingly impractical touch I can get behind.

Were one to pick holes, it could be observed that Folk’s not having a dedicated sock section on their website is sub-optimal. Throwing these beauties in the Accessories section, as if they were a Leyton Orient mousepad, is an oversight, and risks relegating a beautiful line of footwear to a Hufflepuff space of ill-defined miscellany.

In the pink: RoToTo double face socks
In the pink: RoToTo double face socks
There’s something pleasingly formless about these Double Face Socks in light pink (£21.95) from Japanese brand RoToTo, which makes “lifelong consumables” in the small town of Hiroyu. Built for hard-wearing use, while also possessing an otherworldly beauty, they have a strangely futuristic bearing, reminiscent of something a costume designer would conjure for a space-shepherd in a sci-fi movie – pretty much exactly like a normal shepherd only they live on the arid planes of Borax-9, where they herd large, vaguely mammalian cattle that have two heads. There’s a thick bulbosity to these socks, too, which makes you feel as if you’re padding around wearing the inner tube of a hovercraft. These are also expensive enough that they will forever alienate your father, were he ever to find out their price in, say, a nationally syndicated supplement in a Sunday broadsheet. [Note to ed: do I get to comp these for the article?] [[Actual note to ed: that was a joke to be left in the article, but seriously, I might have to skip a few meals next week.]]

Happy Socks
Cheer up: Happy Socks
Cheer up: Happy Socks
This Swedish brand will be familiar to anyone who accidentally said the word “sock” once near an open phone, and subsequently found their Facebook carpet-bombed with targeted ads. In truth, I have no proof that Happy Socks engages in that kind of marketing skulduggery but, whatever their relation to the techno-surveillance complex, you can’t deny they make arresting designs.
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They’re a more high-street friendly brand, with a slimmer line, lower price-point and more mass-market production values, but they boast a fine line in tie-ins, such as their Keith Haring and Beatles editions, both of which I like very much.

I am also indebted to my pal Peter for sending me their Two Peas In A Pod box (£14.95). If you don’t get a thrill from the idea of your child’s chubby little feet being clad in the selfsame polka-dotted socks as your own, well, I sincerely hope said child can flourish within the loveless grind your parenting doubtless entails.

Sock Council
On target: Sock Council’s Deutschlands
On target: Sock Council’s Deutschlands
Reuven Fletcher of the Sock Council – once known as the British Sock Fetishist Council – makes arresting designs from his studio in Newcastle, with a particular brio for football-related offerings, specifically those echoing the styles of famous kits of yesteryear, including beautiful tributes to the iconic designs of Germany’s Italia 90 home and away kits: Deutschland and Deutschland A Socken. His studio also has a range of socks themed variously on cycling or musical pursuits, and all are built to luxuriant standard that make buying four pairs of supermarket socks for a tenner every six months seem more and more like false economy.

Various Korean-made socks
If you’re willing to dip slightly further into the wilder side of the internet’s sock repertoire, there are ways and means to find styles unfamiliar to the European high street. While modesty restricts me from explicitly comparing my dabbles in Chinese shopping site Alibaba to scrolling through the dark web for the drugs that killed Shergar, I presume it’s precisely as difficult and impressive. With a nous for nomenclature that would embarrass the people who name the YouTube videos your kids end up clicking through when you give them your phone at a restaurant, results like “CRAZY FLY 2018 South Korea Women Cotton Creative Illustration Harajuku Fun Hawaiian Novel Art Socks Funny” can turn up gems that cannot be overstated. Many seek socks patterned like hot dogs or watermelon, but it takes a true aesthete to dig through the offal to find those that celebrate A4 file paper, mathematical equipment and geological stratigraphy displays.

Hot dogs: South Korea funny socks
Hot dogs: South Korea funny socks
Though dubious in origin – and, it must be said, legal provenance – here are found some of my all-time favourite socks, with a bewilderingly natty option whatever your desired genre, be it indistinct shape jazz, Dutch villages, dog astronauts, cactus sunsets or – in case you didn’t hear me the first time – socks that celebrate the concept of A4 file paper. The quality is clearly not quite to the standard of some of the other items included in this list – retailing for roughly £2 per pair, it would be surprising if it were – but these are socks that laugh in the face of those who say, “Why?”, preferring instead a full-throated, “Why not?” The appeal of these designs is such that these are the only examples I’ve ever found in which I am willing to forgo the comfort and warmth afforded by superior brands. And if a faint airiness about my ankles makes it easier for me to relate to the greats of Modernist poetry, so much the better.