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Germans, socks and sandals: Exploring the cliche

July 29, 2020

Combining socks with sandals is now a mainstream trend. But even back when it was a fashion no-go, Germans couldn't have cared less. We look into the stereotype, as well as Germany's strong tradition of ugly sandals.

A close-up shot of a two feet in socks and sandals
Image: picture alliance/dpa Themendienst

Wearing socks with sandals used to be the absolute fashion faux pas. If it's hot enough to wear sandals, critics would claim, why would you need to wear socks with them? And isn't the non-waterproof combination absolutely useless in muddy situations or if it starts raining?

Most crucially, a bunch of people simply feel the combination is an eyesore.

For years, several Germans were nevertheless oblivious to the fact that they were ridiculed for wearing white socks with their old-school leather sandals.

Those Germans weren't the only ones associated with the look; it was adopted worldwide, usually by older people unconcerned by the basic commandments of fashion. Still, the German habit was turned into a national stereotype that's still perpetuated today: For instance, in the DW series of cartoons That's so German, artist Miguel Fernandez also refers to the cliche.

The cultural phenomenon therefore deserves further exploration. Are Germans really at the origin of the combination formerly vetoed by the international fashion police?

A graphic showing a two men and a dog. A dialog box reads 'Well, that's a very German shepherd'
The DW series "That's so German" also pokes fun at the cliche

Trendsetters from the antiquity

The internet does not reveal much about the origins of the Teutonic cliche. There's a Wikipedia page on "Socks and sandals" in English and a few other languages — but it doesn't even exist in German — yet.

It mentions that the earliest documented evidence of wearing socks and sandals together was found through an Ancient Roman archaeological site in North Yorkshire, England. An analysis of the remains of a sandal determined that Romans were already doing it 2,000 years ago.  

Actual Romano-Egyptian socks, divided at the toe and designed to be worn with sandals, were excavated from a burial site in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Estimated to have been made in the 4th to 5th century, they have been part of the collection of the V&A Museum in London since 1900.

The Japanese developed their own style of the combination too, as points out fashion historian Birgit Haase, professor at the university HAW Hamburg. Dating back to the 15th century, traditional tabi socks were also specifically designed to be worn with thonged footwear. Donned by men and women in different contexts, they are still part of formal attire for tea ceremonies, for example.

German tourists established the cliche

In comparison, the socks-and-sandals combination does not appear in German traditional dress, even though knee-high socks are prominent when men wear lederhosen.

It's rather through German tourists that the image became widespread, according to Lena Sämann, head of the fashion department of Vogue Germany online. "They would climb mountains wearing tennis socks and trekking sandals, astonishing Southern Europeans," she told DW. For years, Germans were the world's top travelers, but they still wanted to feel comfortable and "at home" while abroad, which is probably why they'd pick footwear that felt like their slippers, Sämann says.

The fashion editor also points out that "Germans like to be prepared and equipped for every situation. They've always had a soft spot for functional clothing — often adopting it in partner look. By wearing socks in their trekking sandals, they probably don't get blisters on their feet as quickly." 

Feet of tourists wearing socks and sandals sitting in a beach basket
Comfortable with the feeling of sand in your socks? Here's the way to do itImage: Imago Images

Fashion historian Birgit Haase also mentions another practical reason for the combination: Socks absorb sweat in sandals — so they're not as useless as they first appear. 

Sandals with a strong tradition

If it's unclear when the cliche of the socks-and-sandals wearer became associated with Germans, the country has a well-documented history as a master of orthopedic sandals.

Birkenstock is obviously one of the world's most famous brands in this field. German shoemaker Johann Adam Birkenstock established his family business in 1774. Their shoes with a cork insole were developed by 1945, and the first model resembling today's widespread Birkenstock sandal was invented in 1964.

The shoe's iconic status is largely due to the German-American designer Margot Fraser. While on a spa trip to Germany in 1966, she discovered how comfortable the sandals were. She started selling them in California in the 1960s, where they became popular among hippies.

In the 1980s, Fraser turned the brand into a multimillion-dollar business in the US. Today in North America, wearers of socks and sandals are rather seen as a West Coast phenomenon, satirized for instance through characters in the "Portlandia" television series and countless memes.

Another German orthopedic sandal with a cork wedge in the sole has recently gained popularity. The Wörishofer was developed in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Wörishofen in the 1940s. When Hollywood stars such as Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal were spotted wearing them by 2010, the brand was added to the list of "ugly" shoes that became trendy, alongside Birkenstocks, Crocs and Ugg boots.

A close-up photograph of two feet wearing sandals and socks
Initially shower sandals, streetwear today: The AdiletteImage: DW/M. Dagan

Meanwhile, the German footwear giant Adidas is behind another cult sandal. Its Adilette slides were designed in 1963 at the request of athletes who wanted a shoe they could wear in locker rooms and showers. With its orthopedic rubber sole and striped top, the iconic poolside model has since moved to the streets, and is often worn with socks too.

Are you hip enough?

"Now on the streets of Berlin you'll find at every corner youths who look like the reincarnation of the formerly typical German tourist — wearing shorts, a fishing hat, tennis socks and trekking sandals," says Vogue's Sämann.

Over the past few years, countless lifestyle magazines have been enthusiastically reporting that the former fashion no-go is now the hip thing to do. Main bonus points of the trend: It gives more exposure to those expensive designer socks, while hiding unsightly toes.

A close-up photograph of a woman wearing socks and sandals
Hide your toenails and show off those socksImage: Imago Images/Runway Manhattan/V. Ranieri

Since at least 2010, labels including Miu Miu, Wood Wood and Vetements have been dressing their models with socks and sandals on the runway. The combo's popularity grew among hipsters who, inspired by normcore and irony, would adopt "purposely uncool" looks.

From Justin Bieber to Tyler the Creator, from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen to M.I.A., superstars have been sporting the pairing as well.

But can everyone pull off the tricks of high fashion labels, post-ironic hipsters and eccentric celebrities? The socks-and-sandals combination is bound to remain an eternal debate — one that those pioneering German tourists never cared to take part in.

You'll find more from Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans. 

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture