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A History of Footwear and Socks – Centuries of Soles!

Posted by Mike Phipps on December 8, 2020

Some brown men's shoes with a men wearing some blue and pink socks and some pink, women's stilettos with the woman wearing blue socks

Photo by Sviatlana Barchan from iStock

To chart the history of footwear, you need to start really far back.

One of the traits of being human is our vulnerability to the environment. So, it makes sense that the most used and often abused part of the body — constantly in contact with the ground — is an area we quickly realised needed added protection. But how has footwear evolved into what we have today, an industry that offers everything from the most impractical catwalk platforms to specialised footwear and socks to treat certain conditions?


Sandals for Egypt and Greece
There is overwhelming evidence of shoes and sandals being used by some of humanity’s oldest empires. The earliest pair of shoes discovered date to around 5,000 BC, in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. They were found in Armenia, in a cave known as Areni-1, which also contains some of the oldest traces of winemaking on the planet.


For some civilisations, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, footwear was born out of ornamentation and aesthetics, rather than practical needs. Warm weather and favourable landscapes meant the feet didn’t really require extra protection. Further north and south, it was a different story, though, meaning just like today, there has long been a broad range of footwear available, from hard-wearing practical choices to trendy statements of power and authority.


When did socks arrive?
In Ancient Greece, people wore ‘piloi’ on their feet, made from matted animal hair. In Rome, they did something similar, inventing ‘udones’ by the 2nd Century AD. Again, these were made from hair, only this time woven and stitched together to fit the exact size of a person’s foot.


Between then and now, we’ve seen ‘puttees’ symbolise purity among Europe’s holy people (from 5th Century AD).


As trouser lengths became longer during the Middle Ages, socks began to take the form of bright, tight leg coverings held up by garters.


By 1000 AD, with the length and cost of socks increasing exponentially, they became a sign of great wealth and influence among the nobility. 


Enough ancient history, what about today?
The invention of the knitting needle in 1589 revolutionised the manufacture of clothing, meaning socks could be made six times faster, cementing their popularity through new levels of affordability.


With the introduction of nylon in 1938, mass production and popularity increased even more.


There have been many iterations and piecemeal attempts to develop socks, or sock-like clothing, for things like varicose veins and poor circulation. Still, it wasn’t until after the First World War that German inventor Conrad Jobst, who was living in Ohio, USA, patented a design for what we now recognise as compression socks or compression stockings.


Compression socks are a mobility aid frequently prescribed by doctors or healthcare professionals for various conditions. Deep vein thrombosis on long haul flights has been headline news recently with flight compression socks often being recommended to wear on aeroplanes. Purposefully tight, many people find it challenging to put them on so using a sock aid or compression stocking aid can help keep everything taught and in place. You can learn more about dressing aids in our recent blog


Lightweight Seamless Socks are another popular example of a specialised sock. They do not have a firm seam stitched around the heel or across the toes, reducing irritation to the feet – particularly useful for children and diabetics, too.


If you live with oedema (swollen ankles, feet and legs) then these Black Seamless Oedema Socks may help, as their elasticated top has been adapted in such a way that it does not grasp too tightly around the ankle, or towards the knee.


Moisturising socks are perfect for use at night. You can place moisturiser all over your feet and then slip the socks on. They will keep the lotion on your feet and off the sheets as you sleep – ideal for softening the feet and heels.Fleece bed socks and thermal bed socks ensure we are as snug as bugs in rugs in bed, or whilst lounging on the sofa. If you suffer from poor circulation, anaemia, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and some nerve disorders following an injury, thermal socks are ideal.


Remember to look after your feet. They’ve got a lot of hard work to do in life!