Sock Madness

April 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

This article ran in Sunday’s Washington Post. As a sock knitter, I found it very interesting!

The $200 pair of socks that won’t impress anyone but you


Last year, I met a Swiss dude with a taste for luxury. He smoked expensive European cigarettes. Drank the finest spirits. Attended opera by himself when he was enthralled by the program but could find no suitable companion. It goes without saying that my pal’s clothes were impeccably tailored. But I noticed that — between the leather of his shoes and the crisp hems of his trousers — he wore bright red socks. Every day, without variation. So I inquired. “The red is sensational, isn’t it?” he marveled, gazing at his own ankles. “So bright, and yet not a hint of orange.”
After much wheedling, I discovered that his signature socks were made by a tiny shop behind the Pantheon in Rome best known for supplying tailored clothing to the pope. I quickly figure out a way to buy these red socks online and have since tweaked my pal by showing up at his birthday party in matching scarlet hosiery.
Many of us can name the various brands of suits worn by the world’s best-dressed gentlemen. But what about the socks hidden beneath? Surely a market for luxurious male hosiery exists. Yet, the fanciest thing I’d ever put on my feet was a pair of freshly laundered $9 Gold Toes. Are expensive socks worth the price?
I called Alexander Kabbaz, proprietor of the haberdashery Web site and perhaps North America’s foremost authority on outrageously expensive socks. He offers a dissertation-length essay on sock construction, material, moisture absorption and “tactile enjoyment.”
The condensed version: The most important consideration is material. There are beautiful, and indulgent, cotton socks. But cotton doesn’t wick away moisture, which means that feet can get soggy. Over time, cotton socks might get shiny, and their trodden-on heels can become crusty. For the sweaty-footed among us, wool is the better choice because it hurries wetness away from the skin. You’ll find different kinds — merino and cashmere, for instance — and some socks mix in a splash of nylon for stretchability. You’ll also want to think about how high your socks climb up your legs. Ankle-length will simply not do with a suit. Over-the-calf is standard and, to my mind, the ideal choice. Mid-calf might be comfortable but is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in the sock world: Before nylon’s stretchy superpowers hit the scene, socks could be suspended mid-calf only with the aid of a pair of garters (which, for understandable reasons, have fallen out of favor). 
Tailored fit is a given with expensive socks. These are not formless tubesocks. They are shaped to hug the curves of your tootsies and are offered in incremental sizes. Many have handlinked toes. Finally, appearance. Socks are revealed more fully only when the wearer sits and crosses an ankle over a knee. Even given time to stare and assess, a spectator will be challenged to draw conclusions from a few inches of fabric hugging a shinbone. 
All of which means that appearance is a surprisingly poor way to advertise the princely sum you’ve spent on your socks. You’re much better off with a compelling back story. This is what my Swiss friend understood. And so, I present to you socks that, when worn and then carefully dropped into conversation (preferably while tugging up a trouser cuff to display them), will 1) lend you an air of sartorial splendor, 2) imbue you with a soupcon of worldly expertise, and, less charmingly, 3) make you seem like an obnoxious fetishist who spends his money on all the wrong things.
These are my buddy’s signature socks. The shop has clothed popes, bishops and cardinals for two centuries. It boasts an unparalleled back story for the money ($27 a pair). And indeed, the reds and purples are eye-meltingly vivid. The fit was a bit gappy around my heel. Still, I’ll be wearing these whenever I’m in the mood for a splash of blinding color.
Comfort: Excellent, but I’d prefer wool.
Appearance: Distinctive.
Foppish back story: Delightful. 
Pantherella merino.
Another sock brand steeped in history. For decades, British-made Pantherellas were considered the gold standard in men’s hosiery. Kabbaz thinks the brand has slumped lately. I was a fan of the 70 percent merino, 30 percent nylon pair I tried. They extended well above my calf but were perfectly contoured to duck into the hollow at the back of my knee. My sole problem with these $27 socks was their translucence. The gray pair I tried revealed hints of ghostly flesh beneath the thinner ruts of its ribbing.
Comfort: Superb. You’ll barely realizeyou’re wearing socks at all.
Appearance: Translucent.
Foppish back story: Romantic! A proud hosiery house fallen out of favor.
Falke “Airport” socks.
Falke is a classic brand, around since 1895. But these socks left me cold. A t60 percent wool, 23 percent cotton, 15 percent nylon and 2 percent elastic,they were a melting pot of fabric. They bunched up at the tops of my feet. Also, the knee-high model ($32) was much too long for my taste, easily extending to my thighs.
Comfort: So-so.
Appearance: Blah.
Foppish back story: Anything with“airport” will not be favored here.
100 percent silk. Talk about translucence! You can see right through these $59 socks. Which is disturbing and gross: I did not enjoy viewing my clotted leg hair. It made me look like I was wearing pantyhose.
Comfort: Silky.
Appearance: Eww, bunched leg hair!
Foppish back story: We are gettinginto materials and prices that should satisfy even the most foppish among us.
100 percent sea-island cotton. Another $59 entrant from the Italian hosiery specialists. Sea-island cotton is a sumptuous fabric — a delight to rub across the cheek. But it won’t wick as efficiently as wool. And for all its charms, sea-island cotton is still not nearly as warm or soft as cashmere.
Comfort: Blissful.
Appearance: Look pleasingly creamy.
Foppish back story: Most men cannot afford to buy shirts made of sea-island cotton. Stoke their envy by revealing that even your socks boast mindblowing thread counts.
100 percent cashmere dress weight over-the-calf. To most observers, these will look like ordinary black socks. At $200 a pair, they are far from ordinary. Even better: Kabbaz says you can wash them only six or seven times before they begin to disintegrate. And yet: When I pulled them on, it was as though I’d dipped my feet into baths of warm butter. What do you get for the man who has everything — $200 socks that can be worn six times.
Comfort: Unmatched.
Appearance: Surprisingly humdrum.
Foppish back story: These socks are in some ways the most outlandish fashion item a man could ever buy.

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