The Enduring Sexual Appeal of the Scrunchy White Sock
If bra straps and garter belts are sexy for their knowing sexuality, white socks are titillating for the naïve enthusiasm they represent.
Illustration by Keara McGraw
Growing up in the 1980s, the rental video store is a staple of my childhood, and the thing I remember most fondly about this place is the small, red velvet curtained off section in the back that held what was to myself and my sister the most interesting thing in the world: "adult videos".
If the video store was Oz, then the deviant videos behind the curtain were the voice of The Wizard himself. I always had to peek behind that curtain.
The porn room was of course totally off limits, and I imagined it to be a world of sexy sex stuff that I wouldn't understand until I was a grown up. Being so intrigued by the idea of sex and grown up body parts, I convinced myself that this room held the secret as to how on earth people had sex without crushing each other as well as all the answers to the weird questions I had about fornication.
On one fateful Saturday night video store trip, as my siblings and I were fighting about what to rent and my brother was having a tantrum at my dad in another aisle (most likely from losing out on his choice of Cujo), I seized my opportunity. I glanced over at my sister and we read each other's minds as only sisters can. In unison we turned and bolted down the aisle, and with a swish of the red velvet curtain, we were in.
I was turning in circles trying to take in the four walls of fleshy video covers at once, and in an uncharacteristic burst of self-control I remember forcing myself to stop and stare at just one cover so I could commit it to memory. To this day, I still vividly remember the picture: a cute, pert coed with huge back-combed '80s hair and a huge smile on her face stared back at me from the cover of Naked With Shoes On. She was proudly displaying her dewy naked body but it was her giant scrunched white socks and her petite white Keds that caught my attention; they somehow made her seem more naked. She looked so eager to get undressed that she had completely overlooked her shoes and socks, and little me knew that all her greatest dreams of how fun sex was were correct. It was so fun that one would completely disregard an essential part of being naked.
To this day, whenever I see a waitress or a woman coming out of the gym with ankles wrapped in bunchy white cotton I can still feel an electric surge through my body. Has any article of clothing been so uncannily sexy? So seemingly innocent while moaning out for sexual attention? White socks look like unwanted detritus when found on the floor or static-clinging to other laundry, but when on the legs of a woman they signal a youthful vigor for physical activities. The sexual appeal of the oversized white sock spans cultures and decades. Let's explore.
The Dark Time Before 1980
Ancient Romans, soldiers, colonialists, Twiggy; they all wore long socks. Thanks to the invention of knitting machines and shops in the 16th century socks, be they fancy or functional, socks were made accessible to the unwashed masses. Before the 20th century, long socks were mostly associated with young school children or men. The phrase "pull your socks up" came out in wartime England as a rallying cry to despondent soldiers who were bummed while conquering foreign lands and people.
In 1968, a young air force physician named Kenneth Cooper published a book on a new kind of exercise called "aerobics". Up until Cooper's book, it wasn't a widespread recommendation that adults get their heart rate up and pumping unless they were athletes. It was assumed that people over forty would drop dead if they tried something like aerobics. And as far as women were concerned, sweating was considered un-lady like. Nevertheless the exercise started to catch on with every-day Americans and Cooper published a follow up book with his wife called "Aerobics for Women". America was never the same.
A Spandex Explosion of Sex
After Cooper's book came out, it was estimated that approximately 6 million people were doing aerobics in 1978. By 1987 that number exploded to 19 million. For women, the 1970s gaunt look of heroin-chic was out. The '80s were about muscle: tight, taut, and toned. Soon came full-makeup mirrors in the bathrooms of neon aerobic studios and those huge white socks were not an afterthought. Make no mistake, those socks were worn with a single purpose: sexiness.
Hard bodies whose curves were enhanced by OTC diet-pill addictions and working up a sweat in g-string leotards were crowned with aggressively large scrunched socks and leg-warmers. Patented in 1983 by a Pennsylvania knitting manufacturer, the bulky cotton accessory became the must-have item for accentuating the fine definition of one's blasted calves. Wigmam 622 Socks started making fabric around the foot of their socks thinner so women could layer their scrunchy socks, creating a multicolored cuff to complement their opaque legging.
A 1983 article in Rolling Stone about the rise of co-ed health clubs as the new meeting spot for singles (immortalized by the glorious John Travolta 1985 flop, Perfect) highlighted the heightened sexual atmosphere of aerobic clubs:
"The jumps and kicks and sensuous contortions are the new dances. The exercise instructors—who play records to keep these dances throbbing—are the disc jockeys. Coed health clubs, the new singles bars of the Eighties, have usurped the sounds and the energy of the discotheques' raison d'etre. They have become part of the mating ritual."
It's no surprise that the group of men who created the hugely successful Hooters franchise outfitted their "delightfully tacky" waitresses in bright white tennis shoes and fat scrunchy socks. According to Hooters' own origin lore, the first Hooter's waitress was hired directly off a bikini model contest win in Clearwater, Florida. When brainstorming over what that standard Hooter's girl outfit should be, founder Ed Droste pointed to his "beautiful secretary" Loretta, "an avid jogger," who was often seen bouncing around in white sneakers and scrunched up athletic socks. And, voila, the Hooter's Girl was born. Virginal in color and alluding to a sportiness that suggests youthful pursuits, the pairing of scrunchy white socks and tennies against bare legs is like getting a peek into the locker room.
90's Tokyo Street Forever
Of course, no discussion of the scrunchy sock would be complete without mention of the iconic, the Japanese School girl, or Oshi kosei, as she is known in Japan. Both smutty Magna comics and kid friendly anime have made her image indelible. In the 1990s, big slouchy white socks were a staple of kawaii street style. The socks, so oversized and heavy, were often held in place with an adhesive that girls dabbed onto their legs. Rather than a tight scrunch of the Hooter's girl variety, the Japanese school sock sags down into a bungle at the ankle making them appear as if they've been stretched out and pulled down (from what sort of activity, only the heavens know) clinging just barely to their young owners. They were often paired with sensible loafers which only heightened their sexual allure, hinting at the bare knees and exposed thighs without overtly announcing their presence. If bra straps and garter belts are sexy for their knowing sexuality, white socks are titillating for the naïve enthusiasm they represent.
The scrunch sock trend fell out of favor in Tokyo during the Aughts and was replaced by the more sober crew style. But in 2013, the baggy booties started to make a comeback. They were spotted on young fashion models and were being restocked in hip boutiques.
The scrunch sock's current revival is the greatest testament to its sexiness because they are currently being matched with, wait for it, Crocs:
Even the most horrid footwear known to humankind can come off as flirty and naughty when matched with big bundles of cotton.
Of course my sister and I were immediately ejected from the porn room and reprimanded by my dad and the store clerk, but that night, as we watched Cujo (our Dirty Dancing privileges having been revoked as punishment) I had never been more pleased with myself. As an adult, I've learned that sex can indeed be forget-to-take-your-shoes-off exciting, and I've watched my fair share of porn and it's as hot and sexy as everything I imagined it would be, but it'll never be as hot as being naked with big, scrunched white socks on.