Socks, stockings, and pantyhose are often taken for granted, getting eaten by dryers or tossed out at the first sign of a run. But these simple garments have a long history that might just earn them a little more respect.
1. SOCKS MAY HAVE ORIGINALLY GONE WITH SANDALS.
The oldest socks that have been discovered date to between 250 and 420 CE and feature split toes—meaning they were likely worn with sandals. Researchers found a red pair of woolen ancient slip-ons near the Nile River in Egypt, at the site of a long-gone Greek colony. What sets these ancient socks apart though is their knit-like construction, from a technique called nålbindning that predated knitting. Nålbindning used only one needle (instead of two) and took much longer than modern knitting.
2. ANCIENT GREEKS LOVED FURRY SOCKS.
It’s likely the modern word “sock” came from the ancient Greek word “sykkos,” which referred to a thin shoe that could be worn with sandals. But, Greeks did more than just name foot coverings. Early socks in ancient Greece had their own special construction—matted animal furs. A pair of breathable cotton socks never sounded so nice.
3. ONLY WEALTHY PEOPLE HAD NICE SOCKS.
An illustration, published in November 1800, comparing men's fashions from 1700 (left) and 1800.
In their most basic sense, socks are helpful at protecting feet from the elements and wicking away sweat (as much as a half pint daily). Despite their somewhat gross use, historians say socks transformed from functional footwear to fashion symbols around 1000 CE, in part because making comfortable socks was a time-consuming, intricate process. Nobles and kings alike sported knee-high stockings as a way to express their financial and class standing because, like many belongings, the silkier the material, the wealthier you were. For some time, presenting stockings to important people was seen as a generous (and much welcomed) gift, which may just be why socks are popular at Christmastime.
4. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SOCKS AND STOCKINGS IS THEIR SIZE.
While sock and stocking are interchangeably used terms throughout the history of footwear, there is a difference—length. Stockings are longer, and were typically worn up to the knees to cover portions of the leg that breeches didn’t cover. On the other foot, socks hit mid-calf or sit lower, and became popular as men’s long trousers became fashionable.
5. THE FIRST KNITTING MACHINES WERE FOR MAKING STOCKINGS.
Reverend William Lee, the inventor of the stocking loom, at home with his wife and child, circa 1600.
By 1589, socks were a regular necessity that took a while to make by hand. William Lee, an English clergyman, aimed to scale down the time per pair by creating the first stocking frame machine that year. Why Lee—who didn’t knit—went on to become a knitting engineer is credited to his wife, who spent much of her time knitting for money (some suggest the credit goes to a love interest who spent more time knitting than with him). Lee’s stocking frame machine was able to knit eight times faster than hand-knitting, and though he had a revolutionary invention, he was too far ahead of his time to make it a profitable career.
6. QUEEN ELIZABETH WAS PICKY ABOUT HER SOCKS.
After creating his revolutionary stocking frame machine, Lee approached Queen Elizabeth’s court to patent his invention. But Lee’s request, according to legend, was tossed out because his stockings weren’t nice enough—Queen Elizabeth was fond of silk stockings and the wool ones Lee produced didn’t meet her standards. Lee reworked his knitting machine to producer finer quality socks, but once again was denied a patent, this time on the basis that a fast-paced loom could put knitting artisans out of business. After a second rejection (and the treason conviction and execution of his business partner), Lee headed off to France, where King Henry IV supported his invention. Unfortunately for Lee, Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 and the succeeding King Louis XIII didn’t find the stocking frame worthy of his time (which wasn't entirely his fault—he was only 8 when he ascended the throne). Lee died soon thereafter, and his brother James Lee continued the stocking business.
7. THE ROARING TWENTIES CHANGED SOCK AND STOCKING CULTURE.
Before the 20th century, most stockings were a generous knee length. But as men’s trousers became longer during the early 1900s, long foot and leg coverings weren’t necessary and they began to shrink (this is likely where the stark difference between stockings and socks became noticeable). With the combination of World War I and flapper culture leading to shorter hemlines, more women relied on stockings for warmth and modesty. And thus, socks became a popular men’s garment, leaving stockings for women. Unfortunately, elastic wasn’t yet used in stockings, and women had to hitch up their sheers with garters.
8. AMERICAN WOMEN RIOTED OVER NYLON STOCKINGS.
The DuPont Company revealed the world’s first nylon stocking at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and American women fell in love with the stretch, comfort, and durability. But, when the U.S. entered World War II two years later, DuPont paused stocking production to create nylon parachutes, ropes, and cords for the war effort. Stockings became difficult to find, and a hosiery black market made nylons a high-priced luxury. When the war ended, DuPont went back to making nylon stockings, but high demand combined with heavy advertising and limited production led to full-scale riots. Women lined up outside stores to purchase nylon stockings, and crowds became angry when supplies ran out. From August 1945 to March 1946, women across the country fought to get their hands on nylon stockings. In New York, a crowd of 30,000 women tried for a pair; in Pittsburgh, some 40,000 battled for a meager 13,000 pairs.
9. PANTYHOSE WERE FIRST CALLED PANTI-LEGS.
Pantyhose came along in 1959, but it wasn’t until the swinging '60s that they became popular. Unlike thigh-high stockings, pantyhose combined underwear and hosiery to simplify leg coverage. But, like many other sock and stocking inventors, pantyhose were created by a man. In 1953, Allen Gant Sr.'s wife, Ethel, demanded that her textile company owner husband create a stocking that combined both undergarments when her pregnancy made it difficult for her to adjust her necessary stockings and garters. Ethel crafted a prototype but left the remaining work to her husband. It took several years for the first Panti-Legs to take off, but the dawning of the mini skirt—which was too short to be worn with stockings and garters—popularized the garment.
10. SOCKS AREN'T POPULAR EVERYWHERE.
Though socks and stockings are near ubiquitous, some parts of the modern world have resisted them in preference of foot cloths, a piece of fabric wrapped around the foot to buffer against tall and bulky boots. Russian soldiers wore foot cloths—also called portyanki—until 2013 when military reform required they begin wearing socks. But not everyone thinks socks are a better fit for heavy boots; some soldiers and military leaders believe that the thick flannel or cotton portyanki dries more quickly and is more comfortable in military boots than socks.
11. THE DECORATIVE SIDE OF A SOCK IS CALLED A CLOCK.
While (most) socks don’t keep time, the area around the ankle, where a pattern may run up the side of the leg, is called the clock. The term may come from the way a stitched or woven vertical pattern can look like clock hands from a distance.
12. A LARGE PERCENTAGE OF SOCKS COME FROM ONE REGION OF CHINA.
Unless you make your own socks or buy local, there's a good chance they were made in "Sock City," China. The Datang District in eastern China is one of the top sock producers in the world, producing roughly one-third of the world’s socks each year. It's been estimated that in one year, the town's factories made two pairs of socks for every person in the world.
Einstein is known for his eccentricities—like his flyaway hairstyle or his penchant for going sailing on days with no wind just for the challenge of it—but he also wasn’t a fan of wearing socks. Einstein didn't see the logic in wearing both socks and shoes, especially if socks were going to eventually have holes. His theory on going sock-less was often discussed, like in this letter to wife Elsa: “Even on the most solemn occasions I got away without wearing socks and hid that lack of civilisation in high boots.” Physicist Allen Shenstone recalled a similar comment from Einstein: “I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to.” And maybe that’s the beauty of woven footwear—you can wear (or lose) any kind you like.