The basic rule of thumb for men's socks is an easy one:
The color of your sock should match the color of your trousers.
That means wearing black socks with black trousers, dark gray socks with charcoal trousers, blue socks with your blue jeans, and so on.
But that's boring 🙂
Yeah, it's a good rule that keeps most men looking sharp and will always be appropriate for business settings — but for adventurous dressers, it gets dull after a while.
So what about mixing it up?
There's absolutely a place in men's style for colored socks that do not match the trousers.It requires a little more care, because it's not a simple, neutral choice, but if you take that care it can look great.
First – When Not to Wear Bright Socks
“Bright” socks can mean a lot of things: bold solid colors, classic patterns like argyle and paisley, on up to things that are bordering on novelty items (cartoon characters and so forth).
In general, none of those are going to cut it as part of a serious business outfit or a somber occasion like a funeral. These situations are not about you expressing individuality – they are about you showing respect and fitting in.
Now, there are exceptions to the rule. There are some powerful men out there who've worn custom-tailored suits with handmade Italian shoes — and a pair of red or lavender socks.
Those guys know what they're doing. They're making a bold statement, almost a challenge. The business suit with colored socks is a look that says “Yes, I know the rules, and I'm confident enough and care enough about how I look to break it anyway, because it's more fun for me. Deal with it”
All well and good if you own a Fortune 500 or are a former Army Ranger. The rest of us should think of our brightly colored socks as social wear, and leave them out of any full business dress.
When to Wear Bright Socks
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's the good news: if you're not in a suit-and-tie formality sort of situation, you generally have the option of wearing colored socks if you want to.
It has to be done right — you can't just throw them on with anything — but there's usually a way to make it work.
Why would you, though?
There are a couple of times when you might specifically want colored socks, beyond just enjoying them for your own sake:
When you want to liven up a simple outfit. Got something basic going on for the day? A pair of unique socks turns something like a jeans/T-shirt or khakis/collared shirt combination into something that seems a little more deliberate. It's like a pocket square in a jacket — it tells people that you don't look this way on accident. You put some thought into the outfit.
When you want extra color-coordination. Been reading about your complexion and your best colors lately? Show 'em off with some subtle matching. A colored sock that complements something else in the outfit is a nice, detailed touch. Work your sock into the same color scheme as your pocket square, your shirt, or even your sports jacket or sweater to get a coordinated look.
When you know you'll be doing business in your stocking feet. Not every business culture keeps its shoes on all the time. In places like Japan, shoes are often removed for meals, or sometimes even for drinks. When you have a reason to believe your socks will be on display, go ahead and make it fun — so long as you're not planning on doing serious business with conservative people. You don't have to go to Asia for sockless situations, either; anything from a locker room to a corporate spa to a meditative retreat might end up with you shucking your shoes.
Beyond those specific situations, there's also the simplest and best time to wear colored socks: when you feel like it.
So long as you're putting some thought into how you're strutting your gussied-up ankles, there's no reason you can't play around with your socks in your basic, day-to-day, “just going about life” sorts of outfits.
Rules for Wearing Brightly Colored Socks
Remember the reason for the “rule” about matching socks to trousers: it's neutral.
Socks that don't match the trousers, by definition, are not neutral. They're a contrast, whether you planned it or not. (That means you want to plan it.)
Here are some good, simple guidelines for making it work out well:
1. When in Doubt, Go Classic
If you're just getting started breaking out of the matching trousers/socks mold, cut your teeth on some traditional patterns.
These liven things up a bit, but are still usually two- or three-tone at the most, and generally not too radically colored.
So what's a “classic” sock pattern?
Argyle, for one (the angled plaid pattern of diamonds and lines) — that's been a traditional sock style for men for the better part of a century, and you still can't go wrong with it. In terms of color, argyles can start at a very simple black/gray combination and go all the way on up to vivid oranges and greens.
Solid colors with small figure patterns like paisley are also a good, traditional option, as are simple stripes of an equal width.
If you start with those, and keep the colors at least somewhat restrained, you should be able to slide into colored sock habits very easily. It's not quite as thought-free as matching your trouser color, but it's close.
2. Coordinate with the Rest of the Outfit
Keep in mind that “coordinate” doesn't mean “match” — your socks don't have to be the same exact color as any other piece of clothing on your body.
But it is nice if there's some natural sympathy, so be thinking in terms of colors that work well together. It always looks good if your socks fit into the same general theme as the rest of your outfit.
That can be as simple as picking out one of the colors from your shirt or jacket pattern, and wearing socks in a similar shade. It doesn't even have to be something that people consciously notice as coordination — their eyes will see it as a “good match” even if they don't think about it themselves.
3. Be Aware of Your Contrast Levels
“Contrast” is the change from one adjacent color to the next. We all have some contrast, both in our natural complexions and in our outfits.
Broadly speaking, you want roughly the same amount of contrast throughout your whole appearance. That means that if your upper half is very subtle and low-contrast — a jacket in the same color but a slightly different shade as the shirt under it, say — you don't want eye-popping color changes on the lower half.
As a helpful rule of thumb, try to keep the contrast between your trousers and your socks at about the same level as the contrast between the trousers and the shirt, up at your waistband. That way viewers are seeing the same basic visual impression all the way up your body.
Getting Your Colorful Sock Collection Started
The final step in wearing colorful socks? Having a couple to choose from that work well with multiple outfits!
If you've never worn socks that don't match your trousers before (or, worse, if you've been wearing white crew socks no matter what your trousers look like), start at any decent menswear store. Most will have at least a few selections of simple, traditional patterns like argyle.
From there, head to the internet and start indulging your own tastes. Be thinking in terms of the outfits you're likely to be pairing your socks with — look for colors to complement your favorite shirts and jackets, for example, or some pocket squares that you've been wanting to work into outfits.
And above all, have fun. Life's too short to never enjoy a colorful sock.