Toxic sock syndrome: How the length of your socks came to say everything about you

Are you an avocado-eating millennial or uber-cool Gen Z? Your socks will tell you  (Getty)
Are you an avocado-eating millennial or uber-cool Gen Z? Your socks will tell you (Getty)

It’s laundry day and my sock drawer is empty. Sort of. I do have one pair: my emergency trainer socks. I begrudgingly pull them on and leave the house, skulking behind the bushes in case a fellow Gen Z catches me with a naked ankle.

I’m overly self-conscious about my hosiery for one reason: according to a new theory espoused by TikTokkers, a person’s socks might say everything you need to know about them. It goes like this: if you wear no-show trainer socks, you are an avocado-eating millennial, and wearing them is basically a death knell for coolness. Those who wouldn’t be caught dead exposing their ankles in broad daylight are likely a cooler, long-sock-wearing member of Generation Z. Various videos on the internet have gone viral over this petty generational battle: Gen Z-ers, in their late teens and twenties, prey on strangers and mockingly guess their age by looking at their socks. In other clips, millennials, over the age of 30, record themselves donning calf-high, bright white socks, and joke that they’re trying to keep up with the young.

Even if you put aside the TikTok trend, the theory might still stand up. I write this wearing my usual get-up: a pair of white crew socks hiked halfway to my knee. And as you can tell, I find wearing ankle socks in public an embarrassing ordeal. When I speak to a millennial friend about this topic, he sheepishly lifts his trouser legs to reveal his bare ankle. People say that you can decipher details about a person just by looking at their shoes. Maybe we should have been looking at their socks all along?

As it turns out, the humble sock is having a bit of a moment in general right now. Alison Lowe, a fashion consultant who leads the Fashion Entrepreneurship MBA at the University of East London, tells me that we’re in the era of the statement sock, with the item evolving from a sartorial afterthought worn out of basic necessity. Today, Lowe says, it’s “a key fashion trend”.

Even in the luxury fashion world, socks are swarming runways. Gucci’s new creative director Sabato de Sarno paired smart black loafers with white long socks for his debut menswear collection at Milan Fashion Week in January. Every model strutting down a recent Miu Miu womenswear catwalk looked like a rugby player in thick, knitted knee-highs. Luxury brands Loewe and Jacquemus have launched branded long white crew socks for £50 a pop. And on the high street, Arket’s popular ribbed crew socks, at £9 a pair, are in high demand. “People have realised that socks can be a vital part of an outfit rather than just a convenience item,” adds Lowe. “And it’s mainly been driven by fashion and social media trends, and a desire for personal expression.”

Sock horror: Looks from a Gucci runway that saw socks in the spotlight (Getty)
Sock horror: Looks from a Gucci runway that saw socks in the spotlight (Getty)

But why socks? The Guardian’s fashion writer Chloe Mac Donnell concluded in a recent article that socks have taken a starring role in womenswear as the unpredictable nature of British summertime weather has thrown opportunities for pedicures and sandals out the window – women are looking for different ways to jazz up their footwear. Meanwhile, Emma Lightbown, a stylist and host of the fashion podcast Off the Hanger, tells me that the emphasis on socks is part of a general shift towards comfort dressing after lockdown. “This is another fashion trend developed post-pandemic when our entire wardrobes took a fundamental shift towards comfort,” she says, adding that statement socks are an “easy” and accessible way to add a twist to existing outfits.

Weirdly, though, the crew socks being sent down runways aren’t anything special: they are plain and sporty. David Brazeau, director of merchandising at the 90-year-old American sock brand Gold Toe, says that Gen Z’s obsession with this kind of sock is part of their tendency to recycle Nineties trends. “Cohorts of Gen Z-ers are wearing things that many millennials wore in school, [and it’s] born out of an appreciation for nostalgic fashion that was more individualistic,” he says. He traces the crew sock trend back to decades ago, pointing towards John Travolta’s coordinated pink socks and black trousers in Grease, or Michael Jackson’s signature monochrome loafer look. Or pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales, seen off-duty wearing knitted sports socks with trainers, cycling shorts and an oversized collegiate sweater – images that regularly surface on Nineties fashion nostalgia blogs. “The cyclical nature of fashion is undeniable, even for socks,” adds Brazeau.

John Travolta’s statement socks in ‘Grease’ (Paramount)
John Travolta’s statement socks in ‘Grease’ (Paramount)

In menswear specifically, socks are becoming a currency. Christopher Gove, the founder and head designer of the trendy Hackney-based menswear brand Percival, stocks his best-selling cashmere socks in the shades “melange oat” (off-white) and “fern green”. He tells me that the de-formalisation of traditional office wear, post-Covid, has played a part in the popularity of socks as a fashion statement. “The casualisation of the office has left the vacuum in menswear where men feel like they can’t be too lazy for the office,” he explains. “They have to find a way to balance formal with relaxed.” And so: smart ties and pocket squares have been traded in for more understated accent pieces, like socks.

When it comes to the crew sock versus trainer sock debate, the fashion entrepreneur – a millennial himself – sides with Gen Z. Gove wouldn’t design or sell a trainer sock, and tells me he prefers to create more timeless pieces. “I find ankle socks really gross. When I think about ankle socks, they’re weird and unnecessary, they’re like jeggings to me – like why are you printing a denim pattern on elastane?” he laughs, pointing towards the short-lived popularity of the jeans/legging amalgamation in the 2010s. “At Percival, we look to the legacy of classic styles like the dress sock, tube sock or sports sock instead.”

Gove says he’s noticed his customers swapping their branded trainers for leather loafers, styled with a statement sock. He says menswear has become geared towards “curating” a look, rather than relying on one loud jacket, or a branded sweater, to do all the talking. “We’re seeing men curate their outfits with a mixture of vintage, a mixture of brand, and showing way fewer logos than ever before,” he says.

If you were to put every type of clothing item in a hierarchy a few years ago, socks would have been the lowest in the ranking. But now, Gove says, fashion-conscious men are thinking about their pieces with equal importance. “It’s not just an Asos sock to chuck in the basket, [wearing a nice sock] is an opportunity for me to get my personality in, whether it’s the brand, or whether it’s a plain sock, it says something about you.”

If you’re now the despairing owner of a vast trainer sock collection, there is some good news. The statement sock trend means that wearing socks and sandals is the ultimate signifier of cool. And, apparently, you’ve got Gen Z to thank for that. “The once faux-pas notion of wearing socks with sandals is no more,” announces Brazeau. “Credit goes to those Gen Z-ers who opted for cushioned crew socks with their Birkenstocks over the last few seasons.” Trendy Birkenstocks or not, you must put your best sock forward whatever you do. And if you’re determined to stick to trainer socks, just make sure a camera-wielding Gen Z isn’t nearby.