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Southern Exposure

David Coggins Wonders Why More Men Present their Ankles Au Naturel

When you meet a man, you observe certain sartorial and social cues. You notice a firm handshake, perhaps a whimsical Hermès tie or maybe a watch the size of a coaster. But if you’re to really take the measure of the modern man head to toe, you are increasingly likely to discover something else: He’s not wearing socks.

We’re not talking about Vans on the beach, Top-Siders aboard a sailboat or espadrilles on the side streets of Saint-Tropez. We’re not even talking about brilliantly colored driving mocs as you step onto a Vespa. No, we’re talking about a man in the city, in a suit, with nothing beneath his brogues. More and more, the ankle is where men are empowered to flash a little flesh. Where once a man wore vibrant Paul Smith socks—some of us still do—to introduce a sense of play into his wardrobe, now men are inclined to trot out their ankles, au naturel.

How did we arrive at this point? What began with a relaxed summertime tradition migrated to the city with the cleaner lines of modern tailoring. And by clean lines we mean shorter trousers that show off shoes. But short sometimes means really short—like culottes. It’s likely that today’s young man has never even uttered the phrase a good break to his tailor, whose trousers are probably pooled around his own ankles.

This trend can be attributed to the immense influence of Thom Browne. The maestro of schoolboy dress, whose suits look exquisite on him but may appear slightly shrunken on anybody not fully indoctrinated in his sensibility or not built in good, concise proportions, Mr. Browne wears his trousers just below mid-calf (when he’s not wearing shorts, that is) and pairs them with substantial wingtips. He’s taken the businessman’s uniform and turned it inside out, undermined the system from within.

Alexander Wang Look 10 AW13Just because Mr. Browne has mastered the art of ankle exposure, does that mean you should too? Those who are not consummate fashion insiders are embracing this with a fervor that leaves others uneasy. The bare ankles strike some as unprofessional and have led certain companies to introduce a mandatory sock-wearing policy during non-summer months. One decided upside of this situation is that it’s far better for men to expose their ankles than their chests.

It should be said, however, that many men are now going sockless in name only. In fact, beneath their beautiful shoes they’re wearing “footies”—little slip-on socks that allow them to invoke the nonchalant air of the sockless, while keeping their hygienic prerogatives intact. At a recent Midtown cocktail party with some men in the fashion industry, I realized, that of the half-dozen men I was with, I was the only one chaste enough to be fully socked.

The dapper fellows each had his own strategy for his footies: Some bought high-end versions at the country club pro shop; others found acceptable three-dollar substitutes that they bought in bulk in a California grocery store. Some prefer a size too large, because they tend to shrink, some wear them a few times and toss them out. But I found that they all were well-versed in the trade-offs around the toes. And I realized that I, in striped socks and uninitiated in these matters, was the most conservative man from the knee down.

One young friend wears socks less than five days a year. As a firsthand witness of this behavior, my response went through a swing of emotional phases. It began with curiosity and veered into a form of mild aggravation at the utter indifference to the elements, bordering on willfulness. In the end, however, I settled into grudging admiration with slight concern about the sock-abstainer’s disregard for the long view. It’s like the morbid fascination you feel for the Polar Bear Club, the people who go swimming in the ocean every New Year’s Day.

Ultimately, what’s striking about this flash of flesh is how something that began as a sign of relaxation now signifies a sort of formal rigor. Ironically, to look offhand and relaxed now takes considerable strategizing. This is, in the end, a sign of the modern man’s evolving view of fashion. He’s not a strict minimalist who’s sworn off accessories or bursts of color. In fact, many of the sock agnostics delight in vivid pocket squares, string bracelets they’ve tracked down in Italy or the dramatic seasonal scarf. The sockless dandy is not afraid to experiment, to express, even to slightly enrage. And, perhaps as important, it helps him to better understand the fair sex: When a woman remarks that her feet hurt, now he can feel her pain.

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