Recently, we heard a radio show about the way the current candidates for president and their wives dress and what this says about them. For instance, Robin Givan of The Daily Beast suggested that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is routinely dressed in large suits because he works out a lot and anything more form fitting would make him look muscle-y and sleek which apparently is not VPish. During the show, Givan noted that she had no idea what kind of socks the candidates wear because she can’t see them.
In fiction, socks and stockings are not only visible; they can speak volumes about the character wearing them. Thinkof the famous stockings of the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES. “Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed.” The dress of Chaucer’s characters is frequently mined for clues about his era. The Tales were written somewhere between 1386 and 1395. So those scarlet hosen have been much discussed. Red hose were associated with the nobility which the wife of Bath was not. But she must have had some money to afford them – and she must have had aspirations. So her hose peg her as a wanna be.
Shakespeare uses hose for a different kind of wanna be in TWELFTH NIGHT when the character Malvolio is prevailed upon to wear yellow stockings to attract the wealthy Olivia, who hates yellow.
In her 1896 short story “Silk Stockings,” Kate Chopin dresses her main character in silk stockings for a day of freedom from her drab life: “(Mrs Sommers) took the elevator, which carried her to an upper floor into the region of the ladies’ waiting-rooms. Here, in a retired corner, she exchanged her cotton stockings for the new silk ones which she had just bought. She was not going through any acute mental process or reasoning with herself, nor was she striving to explain to her satisfaction the motive of her action. She was not thinking at all.”
Bill Bryson uses socks to establish sophistication: When I was growing up I used to think that the best thing about coming from Des Moines was that it meant you didn’t come from anywhere else in Iowa. By Iowa standards, Des Moines is a mecca of cosmopolitanism, a dynamic hub of wealth and education, where people wear three-piece suits and dark socks, often simultaneously. THE LOST CONTINENT: TRAVELS IN SMALL TOWN AMERICA (1989)
Vladimir Nabokov uses one sock to convey the opposite: She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. LOLITA (1955)
We aren’t suggesting you necessarily write about socks or stockings. We are using these humble items of clothing to show that you can provide important information about characters in either a work of fiction or a memoir through what they wear. At the risk of sounding superficial, we derive clues about people we meet on the street from their clothes. The same is true of people we meet in books. Dress your characters – and don’t neglect their socks.