I Asked London to Sock It to Me. And It Did.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the British comedy series "As Time Goes By," the characters scoff at an American in London to buy socks. They may well laugh. Comfortable, supportive socks are conducive to a sense of humor.

Now, it's true there are plenty of socks to be had in my adopted home town of New York. You can always mortgage your house and get designer socks, but be warned: Style almost always beats out substance. As for the usual range of sports socks, they're designed to wear out just about the time you get used to them. I want reasonable prices and utility from my support garments.

And so for the past five years I've traveled to North Conway, N.H. -- a six-hour drive -- to buy socks from a Woolrich company outlet. Yes, I could get them online, and I tried that once. On my computer screen I found a pair that mimicked my favorites, but what arrived at my doorstep was an extravagant wool ensemble that required a half-size increase in my shoes and made my feet sweat. Then even going to New Hampshire let me down. My last two visits left me sockless, as my preferred style was out of stock. With my remaining few pairs threadbare, it was time for action.

I decided to follow in the footsteps of the TV American and head for London. My quest: to find the Model T of socks. Mass-produced, certainly, but of high quality, durable, functional and comfortable, yet reasonably priced. And while a touch of synthetics can do wonders for a fabric, I favor predominantly natural fibers such as cotton and wool.

Armed with a tourist map of London and a Day Travelcard, I emerged from the Underground at the venerable department store of Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. Marks and Sparks, as the locals call it, is a traditional emporium -- a sort of Macy's with a musty smell. According to my guidebook, it had recently tried to modernize but failed, and is destined to be known for its knickers (underpants). That sounded promising. What could be more basic in clothing than socks and knickers?

It had been years since I'd been there. Back then, salespeople swarmed the floor like ants at a picnic but ignored the customers. A salesman once refused to tell me the price of a pair of shoes because he was men's and I was ladies'. Now the floor was empty of staff.

Shopping unaided, I examined the merchandise. The sale socks ($3.75 a pair) were flimsy, but I liked the high-tech cotton-synthetic fabric, so I picked up two pairs. Other styles featured ventilated tops, cushioned heels, contoured toes and one-size-fits-all. But they proved disappointing: either too big or too silly.

The men's department showed more promise. I bought my son some gray, mostly cotton business socks, and my husband lightweight yet cushioned black mid-calves for just under $2 a pair.

Still feeling that I had yet to find the best socks in town, I pressed on. I had a moment of excitement at the Bond Street tube station when I spotted a shop named Socks. But when I got to it, I found it gutted and abandoned.

Near Piccadilly Circus, I stumbled into a shop whose windows featured groovy Indian gear in fantastic 1960s fabrics. I half-expected to run into Mr. Steed picking up a new brolly, or James Bond in search of a distinctive scarf. But there wasn't a decent sock to be had.

In desperation I entered Savile Row, the British capital for men's haute couture. The world-famous street is surprisingly short and narrow, and immediately upon entering I experienced a hush. No, it wasn't the rarefied air; it was Sunday, and this being London, every store on that august avenue was closed. I was reduced to window-shopping.

The Row's storefronts were adorned with tape measures, dummies and other tools of tailoring. Very little merchandise was actually on display, although based on what I saw -- loud ties, a men's sequined jacket, a pink-and-white-striped men's seersucker suit -- I was reminded how eccentric the English are and how they can be at once subtle and blaring. I pressed my nose to the window of Richard James and admired some of the most beautiful handmade men's shoes I'd ever seen. But, at least from my vantage point, no socks.

Back on Regent Street, I popped into Austin Reed, where I found beautiful men's business socks at three pairs for $22.50. The colors were so crisp and bright it almost hurt to look at them. But the utilitarian, everyday sock eluded me.

Later, on Piccadilly, I entered Cotswold Outdoor, the British equivalent of L.L. Bean, where I found a wonderful range of sporting, hiking and hunting socks. Forget the Model T; at $15 to $30 a pair, these were Cadillacs. Is it really necessary to pay an arm and a foot for comfort? No, but I did anyway. I bought a pair of cushioned hikers each for myself, my husband and our two daughters.

Back home, the Marks & Spencer socks improved with each washing, molding to my feet and providing real support. Well, either that or they shrank (79 percent cotton). Then they passed the ultimate style test: My daughters stole them.

On the N train heading for Manhattan, wearing my one remaining pair, I pondered my next move in the quest for great socks. A smug image of director Martin Scorsese looked down at me from an American Express ad. The caption read, "Last purchase, socks in Milan."

Hmm, maybe I could try Italy. . . .

-- Jillian Abbott

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