Imagine my surprise back in 1999, still brand new to this country, when I went to my first house-get-together and discovered with horror and bewilderment that everyone around me was wearing white socks.
It must have been a week or so after my arrival and my friends had invited me for a casual dinner. Who says casual says “casual fancy” for a Parisian. Nothing too extravagant, just effortlessly casually chic and laid back. All shoes were left at the door and all socks were for everyone to admire. Surrounded by 6 pairs of white socks! For a moment I thought: 1. I just fell into a trap and I am in the middle of a strange secret society where I will have to perform painful rituals to be accepted. 2. They all did laundry together and someone somehow played a bit too hard with the bottle of bleach. 3. Maybe they’re just too pure to wear other types of socks. I instantly went into sock shy shock. All eyes turned on my feet, which are not particularly attractive as it is, and comments, questions and exclamations started to fly: “Wow, you have weird socks!”, “Where did you find those?”, “I’ve never seen something like this before”.
It is well known that the French are all about their socks: colors, stripes, patterns, shapes, crazy color combinations and dare I say… even cartoon characters. Yes, cartoon characters for adult men wearing suits and going to work – for real! I will come out of my sock closet and proudly say that I love colored socks and I absolutely love my sock collection. I only buy my socks in France, when I go home, and have had the hardest time not to attract unwanted attention on my feet everywhere I go around here. I have to admit though that socks have evolved for the best in this country. My examples mostly date back from 1999 and early 2000′s. Since then, the long white tube socks have been replaced by the oh-so fancy white ankle socks, introduced I believe mid 2000′s, that everyone is now proudly wearing. You can also find very decent colored socks now in various retail chains. But… the colored socks here are still not as crazy as those one could find in a French store. I mean, we’re talking walls of colored socks – not just 6 samples at Banana Republic. Walls! Entire walls. Bright pink, black with yellow rounds, Simpsons themed, orange and green stripped, triangles with various colors, flowers (lots of flowers), yellow smileys, Tintin… whatever you’re looking for, you name it, we have it!
So why is there a fear of colored socks in this country and a disdain of white socks across the pond?
White socks = uncouth for 99.99% of Europeans. White socks with tennis shoes for the gym = yes! White socks with fancy sneakers and jeans = big NO! White socks with a suit and black shoes = major NO! White socks with shorts and sandals = well, that’s another topic and years of needed therapy so I won’t even go there. Yet, every eyes in Europe will turn toward the white socks if not properly worn just like all eyes are glued on my fantastic purple and grey stripped socks . “You wear purple socks?”… YES, I love purple and orange and bright red and all colored socks! And please ask your 5-year-old to stop pointing at my purple socks, thank you very much!
What surprised me the most about all this is that Americans usually like to set themselves apart and be different. Isn’t America all about be whoever you want to be, dress how you want and care no more? But isn’t the white sock phenomenon just another American conformism to blend among the Bland Sock Club? And what about Parisians who are so afraid of making waves that wearing black (you know who you are!) is the default color of the entire city so they can blend in and not be noticed – do they highly value strong sock personality by proudly wearing their favorite colors and patterns?
I will fight for the integration of colored socks in this country. I strongly believe one should not fear to spice up one’s life with colors. Just like food, if it’s bland, it’s not enjoyable. Season your socks with salt and pepper, add some thyme and oregano and you will get something tasty in the end.
All these sock stories make for funny Laundromat experiences though. I try to educate people around me on why wearing colored socks is not bad and why it is better to have a bit of variety. I also learn in return why you need to wear white socks at the gym because otherwise it just looks weird – and I can still spot any Europeans at the gym with their long black socks and short shorts.
And you know, there is something to say about the power of white socks even at the highest level in the country. When the First Cat under the Clinton era was named Socks, appropriately because of its white paws, I am sure it gave reassurance to millions of white sock lovers that wearing them is not that bad after all and that Europeans can sock it up!