Throughout middle and high school, I attended Oxford Academy, the No. 10 public school in the nation (the ranking has since dropped to 19). To maintain our reputation as an academically rigorous institution, we were discouraged from engaging in frivolous pursuits like football games, home economics and dressing ourselves. Our school uniforms consisted of white polos and khaki slacks; shoes and sweaters were gray or white. After graduation, I cleaned out my closet and counted how many shapeless, baggy gray sweaters I’d accumulated: 12 in total.
There was one thing, however, that the administration couldn’t regulate: socks. Not that they didn’t try — the official dress code stated that socks were supposed to be white, ribbed and above the ankle. But since I mostly wore long pants, my socks were concealed, and demanding students hike up their pant legs for surprise sock inspections was a tad excessive, even for Oxford.
As a sophomore in high school, Tumblr was my go-to platform — I was trying the “art hoe” persona on for size. I stumbled across a post on my timeline that advertised cool socks printed with famous paintings — Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The Sock Drawer, a novelty sock boutique, was running a limited time offer that bundled them together for $20. I bought them.
And then I just … kept on buying. I bought more art prints — Edgar Degas’ ballerinas, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Then I expanded to whatever kooky patterns caught my eye — cats, succulents, mermaids, ice cream. I bought holiday socks for Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July and Halloween. I bought so many socks from The Sock Drawer that it once sent me a free pair as a thank you for my purchases. My friends never asked what I wanted for my birthday or Secret Santa. They already knew to get me socks.
I devoted my Instagram to showcasing my collection, which grew astronomically. Every day I wore a different pair to school, exposing a forbidden sliver of pink or yellow between my khakis and my Keds.
I’m not the only one drawn to the low-key fashion statement. Politicians especially seem to love “sock diplomacy;” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a particularly conspicuous proponent of them, and former President George H.W. Bush’s wacky sock affinity was so well-known that when he died, people paid homage with the hashtag #SocksForBush. Dudes from Silicon Valley to Wall Street rock them too, whether paired with jeans and a hoodie or a three-piece suit.
So what do white-collar workers, high-profile politicians and my high school self have in common? We’re all surrounded by homogenizing, soul-sucking environments that attempt to repress individuality and censor self-expression. When everyone is expected to dress (and act) as boring as possible, when all your peers are blank-eyed and spout meaningless drivel like “Let’s touch base” or “Thoughts and prayers” or “I have a perfect superscore on the SAT,” the urge to rebel can become overwhelming. But of course, fighting back comes with consequences, so the only way you can resist is through something extremely low-stakes and lily-livered, like a pair of pizza-themed socks.
By the time I graduated high school, I had more than 70 pairs of socks and a fun fact about me on hand for every first-day-of-class icebreaker. But then something strange happened. My steady stream of socks slowed to a trickle. I started to spend more time browsing for clothes, cultivating my personal style and building a new closet from scratch. I haven’t purchased a new pair in over two years.
My sartorial freedom in college means my extensive sock collection has lost its purpose, languishing in my bottom dresser drawer. But there’s hope for it yet. In a year, I’m going to graduate and (fingers crossed) find a job that, presumably, enforces a workplace-appropriate dress code. My work wardrobe will consist of button-down blouses, pressed pants and, of course, some fun patterned socks.
Kitty Guo is a senior writing about fashion. Her column “Tongue in Chic” runs every other Wednesday.