When it comes to trends, history often repeats itself, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that the once ultimate male sartorial gaffe – sandals worn with socks – had long been consigned to the fashion dustbin.
But last week the man who has become synonymous with boundary-pushing fashion choices – David Beckham – was photographed on his wife Victoria’s Instagram page wearing black slider sandals with white sport socks.
People in the comments may have been critical (“This is a wonderful family photo … but I’m now increasing[ly] concerned at how many men are going to try and pull off the socks and sandals look,” read one) but internet searches for the phrase “socks and sandals” have increased by 23.4% since the image was posted, according to data engine digitaloft.co.uk.
Meanwhile, influential streetwear website High Snobiety proclaimed: “The oft-ridiculed sandal and sock combo took a turn this summer, becoming an actual must-have.”
The sock-sandal journey from fashion no-no to trend has been gradual. “Unless you are a fifth century pharoah, socks with sandals is a terrible look,” wrote Project Runway’s Tim Gunn in his 2012 Fashion Bible. “On both men and women, it comes off as ageing and inappropriate.”
“I think of Europeans as being very style conscious,” he wrote, “but their proclivity for white socks with sandals is one egregious exception.”
And in 2014, a thread on the social discussion forum Reddit named it the worst male footwear look.
Indeed, for years the combination was synonymous with the stereotype of the “bewildered tourist looking to blend in but sticking out like a sore thumb”, as Scott Schuman, the editor of the influential street style blog the Sartorialist, wrote.
The sock-sandal pairing found its place in the 2010s with two menswear fashion trends which took pleasure in the wilfully ugly. Normcore from 2014, a trend for dressing purposefully suburban and non-fashion, saw the beginnings of the elevation of the humble sandal. “This was the era when ‘the nerdier the better’ started to take hold,” explains Michael Atmore, editorial director of Footwear News. “When Birkenstock collaborated with fashion players.”
Four years later, Esquire did a feature on the Summer of Sleaze, another anti-fashion movement that, influenced by Californian skater and “bro” culture, saw unfashionable styles like tie-dye, bowling shirts and oversize hoodies cut a swathe through formal styles. Here we saw the “rise of sliders from the athletic brands, and they were often paired with black compression socks”, says Atmore of celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson.
Beckham is continuing this slacker 2.0 look, pairing his socks and sandal combo with an anorak and oversize trousers.
“There seems to be a trend toward clothing that is ‘sloppy’ and that would certainly include socks with sandals,” says Gregory Locke, a 31-year-old lawyer, who is back to wearing the look after giving it up when he left university.
“There’s a significant amount of effort put into dressing in a way that communicates you put in no effort at all – the grungier or sloppier you look the more fashionable you seem to be.”
The style can be seen within a lineage of traditionally “ugly” shoes such as Crocs and Birkenstocks becoming “so bad they are good”, where their visual disagreeability becomes a selling point.
But in 2020, socks with sandals have done another heel turn: “Ugly” versus pretty is no longer a concern – comfort has overtaken cool as a work-from-home priority, and they have gained an unexpected legitimacy.
“The pandemic has escalated the trend. It’s easy and practical for moving through this crazy time,” says Atmore. “Comfort rules. And you don’t see the combo on a Zoom call.”
If you’ve been inspired to join the trend, Schuman has a tip to get the look just right: “The sock has to be crunched low enough so that there is space between the bottom of the calf and the top of the sock. if there is no space, it will make a leg look unshapely and ‘log-like’,” he warned.