A Rhetoric of Socks
Two years ago, we landed in Copenhagen and my bag did not. Without a clean pair of underwear or socks to replace what I had worn on my long flight, I went to a nearby Fotex grocery store. Fotex is one of many Danish grocery stores I became familiar with during my month in Copenhagen. In the Fotex near our apartment, the bottom half of the store sold basic groceries — food, alcohol, and cleaning supplies one typically finds in a grocery store. The second floor sold household items and clothes. I bought these socks there out of a large bin, whose placement and size, suggested they were on sale.
My bag arrived two days later, my own socks were no longer lost, and I forgot about the Danish socks I had turned to in an emergency. Later, however, when I was back in America and working out at the gym, I noticed that on the socks I had purchased were two naked women embracing.
This seems like a bizarre time in American culture to write about socks. Given the recent Supreme court nomination hearings, the upcoming midterm elections, the public concern with a president whose inappropriate speeches, policy, and even tweets endanger America’s image at home and abroad, why discuss socks? Socks, banal and everyday objects we wear without much thought, should be the last subject one writes about. Who cares about socks? I’ve been thinking about these socks, though, for some time. I’ve been thinking about that embroidered image I neglected to see when I purchased them. I would never knowingly purchase socks with such an image. And yet, despite how idiotic I think this image is, I still wear these socks to the gym. I didn’t throw the socks out once I saw the image; I kept wearing them. They are somewhat comfortable when I run on the treadmill for 40 minutes believing I am working off the beer I consumed the night before.
What is it about socks that shapes or determines one’s identity or the identity we believe someone else has? Socks, often covered up by jeans, pants, or even boots, may be the most important of all the banal clothing items we wear. Socks project outward our politics, beliefs, idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and fashion. Why isn’t the white sports sock acceptable in a shoe other than a sneaker or an activity other than sports? Why must dress socks be so thin? Do men wear socks more often than women? Why are sock sizes so homogenous when shoe sizes vary? I now own many patterned socks, some with funny sayings, some with different colors other than grey or olive green (my default for most colors). For some time, all I wore were white socks. This practice came to an abrupt end when two friends presented me with beer themed socks at our discipline’s main conference. I own several thematic socks now. One pair features a picture of a sandwich. Some have bright patterns. One pair features the yellow outline of the state of Kentucky against a blue background. One pair features a bald man resting on a couch and the phrase “Like a dad joke” above his head. I have no idea what that means.
During one faculty meeting, one of the college’s deans asked me: “Are those horses fornicating on your socks?” They were.
Socks provide comfort and utility. They protect against blisters, the inner roughness of a given shoe, and odor. As a teenager, I wore black and white checkered Vans without socks. Those shoes were unwearable and untouchable after three months. The stench was too much. In the military, even with socks on, after a week of patrolling Hebron with no showers and no ability to take off our boots, in the school we occupied, we suddenly had a moment to rest and remove our shoes and army issued socks. The overpowering stench of sweat and putridness was worse than those Vans multiplied by 30 men. Apparently, the ancient Greeks wore socks — animal fur wrapped around their legs in lieu of cotton or synthetic fibers. I don’t recall Plato or Aristotle discussing socks. Scientists from the British Museum discovered that ancient Egyptians wore striped socks. In “Inventing the University,” a canonical essay in rhetoric and composition, David Bartholomae critiques as “too tidy” the student who, on a writing placement exam requesting an example of creativity, discusses the covering of a team’s socks with another pair on top of them. The repair of socks (popularly imagined as domestic work) often represents sexism and misogyny, as when, in Black Spring, Henry Miller tells Anna, “I write the poems — if there are any to write. You learn how to cook and darn the socks.” In the army comic strip Beetle Bailey, the goofy and very un-macho Zero spends most of a Sunday panel on the phone with his father discussing darning socks.
Socks traditionally serve teenage boy sexual fantasies. The canonical image of a Catholic school girl involves knee high black and white checkered socks. How many cats have been named socks by unoriginal owners? Christians hang socks from the mantle on December 24 in the hopes that a heavy set Scandinavian dressed head to toe in red will stuff presents within the hanging socks. Socks should never be worn with sandals, but hippies and Scandinavians who do not dress head to toe in red fail to understand that faux pas.
Comedian Jerry Lewis was known for his white socks. Albert Einstein didn’t wear socks. When New York Magazine featured Broad City stars Ilan Glazer and Abbi Jacobson on the cover, it had the actresses pose in long tube socks. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea is famously known for wearing only a sock strategically placed over his penis; the rest of him is naked. If socks can make claims about a person’s personality, their hidden nature (tucked under pants or slacks; ankle or knee length) makes their predictions difficult to ascertain. What kind of socks does Brett Kavanaugh wear? What kind of socks does Donald Trump wear? Why does my wife always steal my socks? In my house, I am the only one to regularly wear matched socks. My sock drawer, though, consists of underwear and socks stuffed in no organized fashion; none of my socks are rolled up together. I spend ten minutes each morning looking for one sock’s mate.
Socks suggest suitability. Matching. Pairs. Belonging together. A mate. Thus socks suggest sexuality (where does a 15 boy ejaculate? In his socks) or, at the least, a relationship that stems from socks. Sock it to me, Laugh In famously argued. Sock it to me is also the phrase Aretha Franklin repeats in her version of “Respect,” a song credited with being a Feminist mantra during a time period when women struggled for equal rights. When. That word, however, does not suggest the “force” that sock, as a verb, should. When feels like a misplaced word these days.
Respect. Most of the public outrage over the Supreme Court confirmation was not about Kavanaugh’s socks, but about respect. A claim of harassment, attack, or assault often goes ignored. Or unbelieved. Or discredited. A significant part of the American population shows no respect for those abused or injured in sexual assaults. Doubt can be the strongest force of disrespect. Doubt suggests an event did not occur. Doubt suggests the individual making a claim lacks credibility. Doubt has no patience for vulnerability or fear. Doubt encourages us to hide the truth because of a panic that no one will believe us anyway. Doubt has no room for comfort. Doubt suggests no one socked it to anybody or nobody can now sock it to the perpetrator. Doubt eliminates a victim’s ability to speak or project voice. Doubt erases respect. Kavanaugh was confirmed, of course. Was there any doubt?
I don’t doubt that white socks can look stupid. I don’t doubt, as well, that those Danish socks I purchased when I felt vulnerable (the panic of wearing the same socks and underwear until my clothes arrive) look stupid. So why do I keep wearing them to the gym where they are obviously not hidden away under my pants where no one can see them and they will likely create for me embarrassment if noticed? Are they really that comfortable? Can’t I find another pair to wear? Or do I simply pretend they are comfortable the way many of us eventually pretend comfort when that emotion is not what we experience? We may be angry with a moment (why the hell did I buy those socks???) but eventually that anger dissipates as comfort becomes the norm. Comfort allows us to forget we were ever angry, vulnerable, attacked, panicked, not believed. That comfort is, of course, fake, But so are many emotions we rely upon to remain sane. That comfort does not reflect the Danish term hygge, but instead, suggests a settling in, a giving up, a realization that despite our best efforts or the most extreme public outrage we can muster, we are left with nothing more than the metaphoric pair of Danish socks featuring the image of two naked women embracing. And we put those socks on. And we go work out.