Last week, sitting front row at the Math Studios F/W 19-20 presentation during Futurum Moscow—an event part of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia that features the collections of emerging designers—I watched as a sea of men descended down the runway decked out in rather typical menswear items; there were navy bomber jackets, royal blue trench coats, and lots of black slacks. Not much was out of the ordinary until my eyes settled on the models’ feet as they glided across the runway, decked out in white socks with black thong flip-flops. There was only one question on my mind: why?
Ilkin Bakhshiev, @Math_Studios.’ designer, told me, “Our clothes are rather strict and we wanted to bring some easiness and playfulness…Flip flops and socks are always bad taste in Russia and we wanted to modify and change this stereotype a little.”
My earliest memory of socks being worn with sandals were the Adidas velcro spiky slides my older sister wore with thick, knee-high socks after soccer practice in the late 1990s — a flashback I associate with a vision of teen girls in blue and white soccer uniforms with their hair pulled up into high ponytails. Later, in the early 2000s, a newer iteration became popular off of the soccer field — the Adidas Adilette, which had a smoother sole and striped band.
Though in some places around the globe, the stylistic pairing has been considered to be bad taste or fashionably offensive, the look has a pretty lengthy history dating back thousands of years. In 500 BCE, Greek poet Hesoid wrote in his poem Works and Days, “around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi." Back then, Piloi were socks made from animal hair likely meant as a protection layer from the daily ongoings in the Ancient Greek empire.
In 2010, an article by the Telegraph reported that an archaeological dig had discovered that the rust on a nail on an ancient Roman sandal suggested that a sock-type garment could’ve been worn by Romans some 2000 years ago. A pair of orangey knitted Egyptian socks were excavated in the 19th century and given to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1900, which were said to have been made between A.D. 250 and A.D. 420. The silhouette includes a divided toe, and the museum claims the socks were actually designed to be worn with sandals.
In the Czech Republic, the pairing has been said to be mostly worn by men over age 50 and is considered quite unpopular (fun fact: a Fashion Report study in 2015 found that 1 in 10 Czech men wears socks with their sandals while on holiday). In 2014, Brian Shea of The Evening Sun claimed that the look was sported mostly by older generations and Germans.
In Russia, Bakhshiev claims that the wearing of socks and sandals likely stems from the post-Soviet era, when men had certain prejudices about the legs. “Firstly, bare feet and shoes are not hygenic. Secondly, sandals on a bare foot oblige you to care for your feet and that is not always the case for everyone,” he told me over DM. According to him, the “anti-trend” is entrenched in what’s now considered bad taste in the modern world, something the St. Petersburg-based brand has made a point of flouting through its range of menswear garments.
“Socks worn with sandals is considered a taboo in Russia, so young designers use it as a way to grab attention and go against the grain, making what once was taboo a cool trend,” said Stephan Rabimov, a fashion critic and American journalist who has been frequenting MBFW Russia for ten years.
In recent years, the questionable fad has been debated from every angle possible. in 2018, the Telegraph dubbed it “the final vestiary taboo” after David Beckham was spotted wearing red socks with Birkenstock-style shoes in British Vogue—but who reclaimed it first? Was it major athletes before/after playing sports? African-American men who don’t feel comfortable exposing their toes? The entire populace of the Pacific Northwest? Or maybe it’s thanks to the normcore term first used by trend forecaster group K-Hole to describe an anti-fashion attitude, which ultimately sparked a massive minimalist-meets-1990’s-dad style movement that changed the entire fabric of an industry once reliant on loud clothing, footwear, and accessories.
Nowadays, the pairing of socks with sandals has become fairly commonplace and not all that ridiculous. In fact, Justin Bieber and Tyler, the Creator are major fans while in recent years the look has been seen on various runways by designer brands such as Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton. According to Bakhshiev, “Everyone wants to wear socks and open shoes. And everything that was previously tabooed is now allowed.”