Finding a good pair of socks should be smooth and straightforward. It's just socks, you know. How hard could it be to get a decent, comfortable, doesn't-pill-and-turn-into-a-fuzzy-Pokemon pair? Well, apparently, very hard.
Many gentlemen know how to spot quality in clothes and shoes, but when it comes to socks it could all be boiled down to one word: "Huh?"
Usually, socks don't get the attention they deserve. I see many men wearing slouchy socks. But I don't blame anyone. On my style scale, socks are just as important as anything else. Many times buying socks is a gamble. There are hundreds of material compositions and thousands of brands claiming to offer the best socks.
So for this article, I will compare 5 different pairs of socks ranging from $6 to $35. This is in part personal curiosity and in part an experiment for Beckett Simonon. We won't be making socks anytime soon, but this is a common request we receive. So, if we ever recommend a product I want to make sure it's the real deal.
Brands reviewed: Gold Toe, Buttoned Down, Zara, Boardroom and Drake's.
Ok. Trying on socks might not sound very exciting, and quite frankly, why should it be? That was my initial expectation. However, given the chance of comparing them side by side, I realized there are differences I wouldn't notice otherwise.
Before jumping into the specifics for each brand let me tell you some general thoughts.
Thickness ≠ Quality
Sock thickness varies greatly. But that doesn't necessarily indicate quality, especially when it comes to dress socks where the aesthetic factor is crucial. In some brands, thickness feels more like fluffiness when the socks are flat. But when you actually wear them, you notice they're not dense enough. Same happens with the sheen, it suddenly appears or disappears with the stretch. Moreover, the thickness is just a vague indicator and shouldn't be considered without seeing the material composition.
It's interesting to compare the different levels of comfort. I don't expect my dress socks to be super cushioned. That's not the kind of comfort I'm referring to. I'm talking about the socks feeling soft, with a breathable weave, and a fit which is supportive and stays up but it's not too tight either. I also looked for knots in the reverse of the heel and toe areas, where the seams meet.
The composition of materials is diverse as well. It's good to see all of them have a higher percentage of natural fibers such as wool or cotton, instead of synthetic materials such as Nylon and Polyester. This, in theory, helps with temperature regulation and sweat absorption. To my surprise, this difference in materials is very noticeable, albeit only when comparing them simultaneously (as in wearing one brand on one foot and another brand on the other).
Ok, I made up that term. But you know what I'm talking about. When you walk, your calf movement tends to pull the socks downwards. In an ideal world, socks should stay up over the day without you having to adjust them every 15 minutes. For this matter, over-the-calf (OTC) socks offer a significant advantage, they stay up all day long. That said, I noticed some mid-calf socks stay up just as well and don't slouch depending on the elastic on the cuffs. My main gripe with OTC socks is that the back part of my pants stick to the socks, so instead of adjusting the socks I often find myself pulling down the cuffs of the pants (which kinda defeats the purpose of OTC socks, so with either length you will need to adjust something).
The five socks compared:
- Gold Toe: Flat Knit Socks
Gold Toe - Flat Knit Socks
$6 a pop if you get a 3-pack ($18).
Made in China.
When I asked around for socks to review, these were some of the most popular, and with good reason. They're ubiquitous. You can find them easily online and in stores plus they are reasonably priced. I got the mid-calf version, but they're available in different lengths.
The composition is 82% Combed Cotton, 16% Nylon and 2% Spandex. Combed cotton is more durable and feels softer than regular cotton, so that's nice. The first time I wore them I noticed a thick knot in the toe closure. This doesn't worry me personally, but for some, it could be bothersome.
For a mid-calf length, these socks stay up incredibly well. The elastic on the cuffs don't seem to loosen after washing them.
They aren't see-through at all, which is something common in this price range. Big plus.
After wearing them and washing, there are no signs of premature pilling. The color retention is excellent as well.
They look entirely matte and dull after the first wash. This gives them a more casual character.
They take a long time to dry (likely due to the cotton used). This is not good if you sweat a lot (adults produce over 250ml of feet perspiration per day).
The original fluffiness flattens after the first wash. Seems like a very superficial finishing.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. Especially for the price. Probably not the socks I'd wear for a special day but fantastic for everyday wear. Also great if you need socks for business and casual looks. If you have trouble with socks bunching up in the ankles consider the over the calf length instead.
- Buttoned Down: Pima Cotton socks
Buttoned Down (Amazon's private label) - Pima Cotton socks
$7.33 a pop if you get a 3-pack ($22)
Made in China
I was eager to try these socks. According to the reviews on Amazon, they looked like a few notches over Gold Toe. To my disappointment, it was not the case.
The composition is 65% Pima Cotton, 21% Nylon, 11% Polyester and 3% Elastane. Pima is long staple cotton, well regarded for its softness, color retention and resistance to pilling and fraying. On paper, these socks seemed like an excellent option, but when I held them, my reaction was similar to seeing the kind of socks which look nice at first but don't handle washes very well.
- Easily available from Amazon.
- Pima cotton is a step up over regular cotton.
- They dry fast, potentially a factor to consider to wick sweat.
- They are weak. Once you wear them, you feel the looseness of the weave.
- In the ankles, calves, and heels, they are see-through. That transparency is just too much, I can see them developing holes after a few wears.
- The sheen is plasticky. 11% Polyester could be the cause.
- Unlike other mid-calf socks, these don't stay up very well.
Would I recommend it?
No. As much as I wanted to like these socks, I think you will do far better with Gold Toe. Even though these have Pima cotton, they feel fragile and lower in quality. After the first wear, I can already see premature pilling in the heels.
- Zara: Ribbed socks
Zara - Ribbed Socks
Made in India
I've heard mixed things about socks from Zara. Likely due to the vast supply chain they manage. For a single item, there could be multiple factories producing it. Even with the same specs, this yields inconsistency.
A short aside, quality of working conditions might be a topic for another article, but that's important, at least in my book. This could apply to Gold Toe and Buttoned Down as well, although I couldn't find any evidence to prove it. On the upside, producing socks is a relatively automated process.
Back to the socks, the composition is 65% Cotton and 35% Nylon. To my surprise, these feel good. To the touch, they're softer than the other brands at this price range.
- Surprisingly soft and comfortable.
- The weave stays dense when you stretch them. Not see-through at all.
- No signs of premature pilling or color fading after the first wash.
- Despite the high percentage of Nylon, the sheen seems "natural."
- They're too short. Lower than the regular mid-calf, crew height.
- The weak elastic band combined with the low height leaves your calves exposed when you sit down.
- Unpredictable availability and consistency.
Would I recommend it?
Maybe. According to most opinions, their quality is a gamble. So consider that. My biggest concern though is the length, a couple of inches more and a stronger elastic band would put these socks on another level. I couldn't find them in a different length, but then again, it's unpredictable.
- Boardroom: Merino socks
Boardroom: Merino Socks
Made in the USA
Personally, I consider Merino Wool one of the best materials on Earth. It probably is the best material for socks. Sure there are other premium options, for example, blends with cashmere and linen are luxurious. But in terms of performance, Merino Wool ranks pretty darn high.
These are pricier than the other brands, but considering you're getting 67% Merino Wool, 30% Nylon and 3% Spandex, $14 is more than reasonable.
- 67% Merino wool is a big deal. It offers excellent temperature control, wicks away moisture fast and prevents bad odors.
- Available in different lengths and colors.
- They stay up all day long. The elastic cuff feels snug but not tight at all.
- The weave is dense and firm, yet it feels crazy comfortable.
- Slightly darker than shown on the website.
- The price, while fair and totally worth it, is double than cotton alternatives.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. Absolutely. Value-wise these punch above anything else. The quality for the price is outstanding. The jump from cotton to Merino Wool is steep in terms of comfort and breathability. Not only are the materials excellent, but the construction is also solid.
- Drake's: Gentlemen's Light Wool Socks
Drake's: Gentlemen's Light Wool Socks
Made in Italy
Drake's is known for making some of the highest quality ties in the market, they also do garments and accessories and have an outstanding product curation in their stores, and well, they produce the coolest menswear lookbooks. Admittedly, I'm a fan. Yes, but I will do my best to keep my opinion objective.
With Drake's socks, we jump into a different category. It shows up in the composition, build quality and presentation. However, that's all expected at this price point. $35 for a pair of socks is certainly not cheap.
The composition is 80% Merino Wool and 20% Nylon. The presentation of these socks is superb, to the point it might feel like too much for a pair of socks. This is debatable, considering the price. I'd just say with the sturdy box they make for excellent gifts.
- 80% Merino Wool offers unreal softness. They just feel great on the feet.
- They seem to offer the perfect balance between thickness, density, softness, and elasticity. These socks feel robust and comfortable at the same time.
- They have hand-linked toes, so the seam on the closure is practically invisible.
- They look intact after a couple of wears and washes.
- The over-the-calf length is more of a knee height. I have to fold the cuffs to make it a real over the calf. They're too long.
- Sizing might be confusing.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. While expensive, these socks are such a pleasure to wear. It's more of a treat rather than a pair of everyday socks. Sometimes, that's all you need to make your day.
Note: I also tried a pair of Darn Tough - Merino light socks which I intentionally left out. While they make some quality, hyper-durable, socks I found them just too beefy and casual to be judged by dress socks standards.
If I had to recommend only one, it would be the Boardroom Merino socks for their incredible value and reliable quality. That said, if I truly had to get a new socks wardrobe I'd get a mix. A few Golden Toe for everyday and casual wear, a bunch of Boardroom socks for business days and a couple of Drake's socks for when I'm feeling a bit more indulgent.
As always, consider what works for you. The clothes you wear, your personal taste, budget, etc. Just as with shoes, it's essential to have a good socks rotation. Regardless of quality, at some point, they will all pill or fade to a certain degree.
Everything looks great when it's brand new, but the real test comes after use. I will make sure to update this post in a couple of months or so of wearing the socks.
What causes the dreaded pilling?
Basically, we have two factors at play. Friction against your trousers and shoes. And friction when you wash them, from water, other socks or god forbid... clothes (you should wash socks separately and inside out, that's adulthood 101).
Friction loosens the ends of the fibers creating those annoying fuzzballs over time.
Is pilling an indicator of quality?
While most natural fibers used in socks tend to pill due to friction, it also depends on the length, twist and blends of the yarns used. So in theory, high-quality socks shouldn't pill as much, or at least not as fast, as low-quality socks.
Some brands argue they use a type of cotton or wool staple which will pill fast but will preserve the thickness. Others say they use a different kind of staple which pills less but tend to get thinner over time. So in the end, it's a balancing act. But whatever they say, for most of us, fuzzballs are just undesirable and bad looking.
What's the deal with ribbed socks?
It's part aesthetic and part function. It originated with military socks as a "cooling" solution for feet. The gaps between the ribs help to dissipate heat and allow for more ventilation. Consider that if you usually get hot feet.
Thank you for reading! Are your favorite socks not in this list? Let me know in the comments.