The guys in Silicon Valley were supposedly doing the crazy sock thing first: vibrant socks apparently set them apart from the stuffy business types. These hip entrepreneurs shunned suits for a uniform of hoodies, tracksuits and outlandishly stripy socks – or at least that’s what they wanted you to think. Studies suggest that dressing in a non-conformist way could might be to their benefit. Done well, counter-cultural clothing gives the appearance of status and competence. There’s only one condition, however: you have to be a high-status individual already to get away with it. Unless you’re female, in which case it’s the other way around.
But don’t invest a pair of Donald Trump socks just yet because there’s no evidence that vibrant sock wearing has a similar effect. So far, researchers have focused on socially innocuous non-conformity, like wearing a t-shirt to work or being in possession of a pair of snazzy shoes.
What we do know from research is that your body adornments will indicate to others what social group you are most aligned with. A computer game T-shirt might put you in the ‘geek’ crowd, for example. If you’re deciding to step out from the crowd, however, just make sure that you do it carefully. Getting a new tattoo could backfire on your work prospects if you get it wrong. Tattoos are traditionally associated with gangs, bikers and Navy men who you wouldn’t trust around your daughter. And while they are slowly becoming more acceptable in the workplace, they are still seen as controversial by many: in a 2015 Harris Poll, 29% of tattoo-less people said that inked individuals are less intelligent (while only a miniscule 2% considered tattooed people more intelligent).
Clothing and body adornments can also communicate something about mood or personality. Some women may dress in snapbacks and buttondowns because they don’t feel that especially ‘girly’, or some might throw on a flowery skirt if they feel that they are. Psychiatrists and psychologists look out for dark clothing, which can indicate low mood and depression, or overly bright clothing, which can indicate happiness or mania.
But does all this theory really extend to socks? At best, it seems likely that wearing patterned socks might indicate that you’re slightly less conformist than someone who sticks with all black. But can it really still be seen as a ‘revolutionary’? With the jazzy sock phenomenon being so ‘on trend’ right now, wearing flamboyant socks could soon mean that you’re actually following the crowd, rather than going out on your own. To be truly revolutionary you’ll have to find the ‘next big thing’ before it becomes the ‘current big thing’. After all, isn’t that what a smart, successful person would do?
There’s one final thing to bear in mind before you slip on your socks tomorrow morning. Enclothed cognition theory states that what you wear alters how you behave. It turns out that we perform better on thinking tasks if we’re told that we’re wearing a doctor’s white coat, compared to when we’re wearing the same overalls but told it’s a painter’s coat. Wearing formal clothes can also make us feel more powerful and can lead to more positive attitudes, regardless of what other people think of us.
So perhaps we should all care less about how others may see us and care more about how our clothes (and tattoos) make us feel. And if flashy socks are your thing then – vive la sockalution!