31 Jan Wearing White Socks

Not long ago, a friend told me that I was her uncle’s favorite among her friends because I am unassuming “and,” he added, “Ron wears white socks.” It was the first time I had heard anybody talk of socks — and what they mean — in years. If you’re a Baby Boomer, like me, you probably have something to say about socks because, when we were growing up, socks were a big deal. Admittedly, most of the fashions we championed make me cringe nowadays whenever I watch a movie or TV show from the 1970s. But the black socks/white socks divide is worth a bit of discussion.

You should know that, until the 1960s, men wore light-colored cotton socks, which may or may not have matched their suits. The colors ranged from gray to green, brown to ecru, but rarely black and never white. Black socks were formal wear or for funerals. And only working class men wore white socks. These were called “athletic” socks because everybody else wore white socks (“gym socks”) only when playing sports. The myth of white socks was that they were somehow healthier than other socks. It sounds odd now, but the thinking was that socks of other colors would give you athlete’s foot because if you sweated too much in them, the dye would come off. Never mind that ALL socks, even white socks, are dyed.

In ironic contradiction to its blue-collar associations, the white sock was co-opted in the 1950s by the preppies. The quintessential college prep outfit from, say, 1958 to 1968 was cordovan penny loafers, white denim khakis, a buttoned-down oxford shirt, and white socks. This was pretty much the official band outfit of the Beach Boys until they met the Maharishi Yogi in 1967 (Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was a hit that year). Up until that point, like the Beach Boys, I was a preppy. I remember asking for and getting white chinos and, yes, penny loafers.

Are you still with me? Most fashionistas don’t know this, so pay attention: before the psychedelic era, the Big Change in boys’ fashion was the shift from white to black socks, from the prep look to the urban look. In the mid-1960s, young men started wearing black socks every day, for everything but gym. It was revolutionary. I repeat: up until that time, everybody was accustomed to seeing men and boys wearing only light-colored socks, even with suits. The appearance of the stark black sock was deemed daring and ultra-cool, and I remember how impressed my grade school friends and I were when we saw the older boys wearing them. Overnight, all of us tossed out our light-colored socks.

I call this the “urban” look, but it went by many names. In England, it was called “rocker” as opposed to “mod.” In the northeastern U.S. it was called “greaser” as opposed to “ra,” as in “ra-ras” or preppies. I don’t want to make this too complicated but it bears mentioning that the “greaser” look has its origins in the 1950s (and maybe earlier) and was often associated with teenagers who greased back their scandalously long hair and spent a lot of time working on their cars and motorcycles. Marlon Brando, in “The Wild One” (1953), was a greaser. The point is, greasers were tough, urban, “ethnic,” and rebels. So, by the mid-1960s as American teenagers were growing increasingly restless, the greaser look had great appeal: it favored dark clothing, tight pants, sunglasses (shades), pointy European-styled shoes and even boots. On the evolutionary scale of fashion, it was much closer than anything else to the mod fashions — and then psychedelic fashions — that tsunamied over America later in the decade.

Look at early photos of the Beatles and you’ll see that they were dressed like greasers. Beatles boots are greaser wear (Teddy Boy wear too but I won’t get into that). Black was the centerpiece of the greaser / hipster / rebel aesthetic. That meant black socks. And that meant that, by 1967, teenage boys wouldn’t be caught dead wearing white socks. Not if they hoped to be cool. I didn’t go back to wearing white socks again until my last year of high school when I saw ALL of the African American boys wearing white socks with jeans and white low-top sneakers. It was a really cool look, I thought, because it was channeling the old prep style in an urban/AA way. Yeah, you’re ahead of me if you’re thinking Michael Jackson — because he was the next stop.

So white socks came back and I love them because of their retro preppy associations and also because of their working-class roots. But to those folks who are 70 years or older, white socks will forever be associated with car mechanics and washing-machine repairmen. That’s why my friend’s uncle thinks I’m such a down-to-earth guy because he sees me wearing white socks with my “street clothes.”