The joy of socks

TRIED & TESTED; If it's socks for Christmas again, make sure they're the right ones. Our panellists sort out the potentially holey from the wholly desirable

Christmas approaches, and fathers begin to twitch with the thought that under the tree they'll find a selection of small squishy packages - each containing another pair of socks. Fortunately, the men's accessories market is catching up with the women's in terms of diversity, style and availability, so receiving a pair of socks does not necessarily mean you'll get something grey and acrylic out of which a large toe will pop come March. If you can't think of anything else to buy your dad, our guide separates the holey from wholly desirable.

THE PANEL

Our testers, all experts in socks or feet, were shoe designer Nicky Lawler; Alan Woods, managing director of Alan Woods River Cruises, and father of three with drawers full of the socks of Christmases past; Max Karie co-owner of and buyer for Soho fashion shop Shop; and dancer Mark Vincent, currently in Chicago at London's Aldwych Theatre.

THE TEST

We chose a wide selection of socks, differing in style, fabric and price. Apart from the Ralph Lauren, Burlington and Hackett socks, which bore the name of their makers, testers were unaware which socks were from which shops. Testers felt the socks and tried them on, and the father of the panel, Alan Woods, explained how he would feel if he were given the socks for Christmas.

*LITTLEWOODS MERCERISED COTTON

3-pack pounds 6 (pounds 2 per pair)

When cotton is mercerised, it is treated with caustic alkali which gives it greater strength and added lustre. The finish that results led to a variety of remarks from Max Karie's "they're a horrible fabric, like the chenille of the sock world," through Mark Vincent's "they're really average" to Nicky Lawler's "they are nice. They're smooth and fine." They were generally popular for a business or more formal environment, although their colour (sky blue) proved unpopular with Max Karie, "It's a hard colour to go with anything. It's a cheap blue."

****MARKS & SPENCER LAMBSWOOL RICH SOCKS WITH LYCRA

3-pack pounds 7.50 (pounds 2.50 per pair)

As with underwear, when most British men think of socks, they think of M&S, and we picked a fairly standard, short pair of socks with a 1 per cent Lycra content for comfort, reinforced heels and toes and a seam in the toe which is designed not to annoy. Alan Woods' second favourite from the selection, he said that they were perfect for "business or semi-formal wear". Max Karie was happier with the colour, dark charcoal, and pronounced it "a colour that doesn't offend", before adding that "it's not too fat; an okay sock for wearing with, say, Gucci loafers." Mark Vincent, who was sizing up the socks' ability to make it to the barre, said, "I'd use these to dance in. They are a good, sensible sock."

***BURLINGTON ARGYLE

pounds 6.50 per pair

Soft and lovely, and with their trademark small metal tag on the side of one of the pair, Burlington is the pre-eminent name in the world of argyle socks and produces a rainbow-wide range of colours. The socks are 75 per cent polyacrylic and 25 per cent polyamide, which makes them long- lasting and helps their dye take better. It seems everyone has an issue with the pattern, "they look like something an American tourist who plays golf would wear." (Mark Vincent). "They look like granny knitted them" (Nicky Lawler) and "I like Burlington, I used to wear them at school" (Max Karie). But the response to them was generally positive. With reference to the feel of the socks, Max Karie said they were "a bit synthetic, but that makes them wear well". Alan Woods said: "they feel good quality," and Mark Vincent added, "they're really soft and comfortable and a good length."

*****RALPH LAUREN BOUCLe CASHMERE MIX

pounds 20 per pair

With cashmere and angora in the mix, these socks are the luxury buy, and they came out the winners, too. There was a slight resemblance to a pair of terry towelling socks, but the softness of this pair combined with those magic words Ralph Lauren subtly printed on the sole, banished any thoughts of nasty white sports socks. Mark Vincent was initially unconvinced, "they look quite dreadful. They remind me of baby clothes or naff hikers." But once the socks were on, it was a different story. "They're comfortable and warm, they're good for my skin tone [black] and they look much better on than off." Nicky Lawler couldn't quite decide what they were: "They're definitely slippers. They're really cosy and I think I'd wear them inside out. But then I wouldn't have the designer name showing, would I?" Alan Woods, who spends a proportion of his working time clambering around boats and a some of his free time walking with his dogs, also liked the idea of them: "These would go with walking and all sorts of sports." Even the often sceptical Max Karie was satisfied, "because I am, for want of a better word, a label queen, I love them."

***HACKETT

From pounds 10.90 per pair

Looking like something you might see on the playing fields of England, Hackett's range of socks with toe, heel and top in a contrasting colour have become such a "must-have" with well-heeled men across the country that other retailers have been imitating their design. While not cheap, the socks are distinctive, long-wearing and become increasingly comfortable. Alan Woods was not convinced: "They're a bit too prissy." What a good thing he's not the father of Nicky Lawler who said: "I thought of buying these for my dad. They're lovely." Highest praise came from Max Karie. "I love the two-tone effect. They're the kind of socks that you wouldn't feel embarrassed to be wearing if you got run over and taken to hospital."

**BODEN WOOL AND NYLON MIX

pounds 9 per pair

Marketed by quality mail-order fashion outlet Boden as Boring Socks with the caveat "your socks should never be happier than you are", these are anything but boring. Long socks are sexy to wear even if not necessarily to look at, and as winter marches on you'll be glad both to keep warm and to avoid showing that segment of leg between trouser and sock when you sit down. The panel wasn't convinced. As Alan Woods said, "they're too long although they do have a good feel and they are obviously good quality." Even Max Karie wasn't sure. "They're too bloody high. They're kinky high." But with Mark Vincent, the socks had found their soulmate. "Oh wow. These would be great for dancing in. You could have them up or down and I like the red stripe [round the top]. They're quite soft and they're very comfy."

***DORe DORe WOOL NYLON MIX

pounds 11.99 per pair

Every DD sock comes with a message in French explaining that the heel and toe are reinforced and that the finest spun threads are used. As well as this, Dore Dore socks are made for present giving, filled as they are with a small piece of tissue paper, the crinkle of which shouts quality as the present is opened. The panel was split, with Max Karie and Mark Vincent against and Alan Woods and Nicky Lawler for. Max Karie thought them "a bit depressing and naff" while Mark Vincent thought them, "a little bit short; they look like they would be soft but they don't feel that soft. They look like they've been rolled on a cat." Nicky Lawler thought they were the wrong length: "I wish they were sports length or knee length, but I do like socks like that. They're very good basic socks." For Alan Woods, they were the best of the bunch, "because they look like a good size. You could put them on with anything. They feel good and I like the reinforced toes."

STOCKISTS

For stockist information call Marks & Spencer on 0171 935 4422; Littlewoods on 0151 242 6050; Burlington on 0171 580 8355; Ralph Lauren on 0171 491 4967; Hackett on 0171 730 3331. DD from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, 0171 629 1234. Boden available by mail order on 0181 453 1535. !

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