Two Crews Alive: The Return of an Impractical Eye Sore or the Harbinger of a '90s Cultural Revival?
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” – Oscar Wilde
Don’t Look Down
I’m back from a week-long sojourn to Gatlinburg, nestled deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, but it might as well have been a time warp to 1996. When I wasn’t outdoors absorbing the very soul of the South, I could be found lounging on an overstuffed couch reading Stephen King novels while eating copious amounts of Flaming Hot Cheetos, or telling childish dirty jokes while playing air hockey in the basement. It was a week of glorious full-on regression. I was a kid again, surrounded by beauty, insulated by familial warmth, and totally unburdened by the cumbersome responsibilities of the daily grind. I felt reborn; everything seemed not just new, but almost virginal; that is to say that everything felt possible, and that those possibilities felt limitless - much like that bag of Flaming Hots. This is the way the mid-90s felt for me, chocked infinitely full of potential.
But not everything was so fantastically unrefined. Not everything was so blissfully innocent. No, there were sinister portents of past mistakes lurking through the touristy throughways of back alley, backwoods Tennessee, and they too came from the ‘90s. They were on the move, in transit; they were everywhere all at once. I spotted them on the trolley, in the haunted house, throughout the golf course, and around every corner of every hiking trail. It seemed as though they had silently, yet undeniably, completely annexed Gatlinburg. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing, yet there they were, cushioning the feet and swallowing the shins of every garden-variety southern teenage male. The crew sock had most definitely made a shocking return on the lower limbs of awkward, acne-riddled high-schoolers.
The first few instances of visual confirmation of tibia turtlenecks led me to believe that this was merely the poor stylistic choice of a few confused post-pubescents, but by day two, it hit me that this crew sock prominence wasn't a fluke; I’d seen roughly 50 pairs of crews on teens, and my disbelief transitioned to horror. Now, hopefully, the topographical features of that part of the country will serve as some form of a tourniquet, an obstacle to prevent the spread of this fashion faux pas. But my gut tells me that this outdated clothing article is about to make an insidious return, not only in the South, but across the country and maybe, just maybe, the globe.
Crews, Christ, and Culture
Socks have been part of our wardrobes for centuries. In fact, the sock actually predates Jesus Christ by at least 800 years. (What’s more Old Testament than that?!) Traditionally, they have come in many forms, but each form has always served a practical and efficient purpose, essential even. They absorb gobs of sweat in the summer and keep our phalanges toasty in the winter. They help prevent infection and add a layer of comfort to our necessary stomping about. They also have the ability to add a little flavor to a get-up (i.e. argyles for men, thigh-highs for women), but this is more graduate work wardrobe stuff, so tread carefully and seek counsel when distressed. But there is nothing that can render an otherwise hip human achingly awkward as quickly as a pair of crew socks, especially those of the colored variety.
Crew socks are too hot to wear in the summer, and they have a tendency to itch. But more than their impractical warm-weather usage, they look ridiculous. They accent the ugliest portion of the human body (the knee), and they have a tendency to make people look shorter than they are. Yet, as if to spit in the eye of sensible, subtle style, not to mention common sense and basic mobile efficacy, modern Gatlinburg teens enthusiastically run around in black crew socks in 85 degree heat. It’s as if they’re just hanging around the arcade or the fudge shop or the jerky store convinced that a pickup basketball game is going to break out at any moment, which, disappointingly for them and me both, never does.
Which leads me to (what I feel to be) an interesting question: From where, pray tell, does this revival impulse stem? Crew socks have been around for a while now, but they’ve only rarely been in high demand. They first came to prominence in the sock-hopping’ ‘50s, but then seemed to fade into fashion purgatory for the standard 25 years or so. They were revitalized in the early ‘80s for no other reason than the fact that it was their turn to be recycled. People still wore them, but usually to mow the lawn, not to hit the club.
However, with the massive global popularization of basketball in the early- to mid-‘90s, thanks in large part to Michael Jordan, The Fab Five, and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the crew sock made a triumphant return to lower legs around the world. This 10-year time period defied the typical epoch of the style cycle, but this was due to the fact that it was born of a practical purpose. Basketball players wear crew socks for light ankle support and to absorb sweat. To mimic this, would-be ballers began wearing them in order to make a statement about their athletic aspirations. It didn’t matter if the last man off the bench could hardly dribble the rock; he wanted to be like Mike, so he threw on a pair of swooshed crews and transformed into a hoops junkie. Crew socks became a signifier for urban athletic culture and were recognized as the next best thing to actual hardwood aptitude. This was their moment in the sun; it was the moment they were made for.
But basketball has significantly faded from the larger social conscious over the last decade or so, which makes the return of the crew sock all the more enigmatic. Not only is there no longer a pop culture phenomenon with which they’re currently associated, but it’s only been about 15 years since their popularity faded. This would seem to imply that they're comeback is way ahead of schedule, at least in relation to the templated fashion cycle to which we’ve all become accustomed.
On to the Next One
The fact that they seem to be reemerging independent of any practical or periodical explanation clouds the issue even further. There is nothing inherently cool about crew socks, quite the opposite, in fact. Like their goofy contemporaries the Scrunchie and the fanny pack, and unbeknownst to the actual wearer, nothing screams nerd louder than a pair of athletic apparel endorsed shin sweaters. Yet, there I was wandering around the Appalachian Mountains, and I couldn’t steer my gaze in any direction without staring straight at a pair. Now I can't help but wonder if maybe I'm just that out of touch? Maybe crew socks really are cool, and I'm the aging dork. Perhaps there is some larger cultural force at work here, and I've become an outside observer to the cultural channel. That, or crew socks just won't be denied, that they've simply willed themselves back into existence of their own volition.
I’ve been praying for a ‘90s revitalization (sans crew socks, of course) since January 1st, 2000, but this crew socks craze leads me to believe that it may be happening much sooner than expected. This could mean that either a) the ‘80s sucked so hard that even their revitalization period was bound to be subpar, or b) the fashion cycle is speeding up as a direct corollary to the overall acceleration of our lifestyles.
The general suckery of the 1980s feels more like self-evident fact than personal opinion at this point, but it seems like we all knew that five years ago when this all started back up again; we were just too busy basking in contrived irony to see it for what it was, yet another obsession with nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. Thankfully, that irony is already wearing thin - as evidenced by the rapidly dwindling presence of skinny jeans.
As for style periods, fashion is a fickle beast, and by and large, what we call fashion is usually little more than the inevitable result of boredom, which is why it always seemed so predictably cyclical. Therefore, it stands to reason that, as our society delves deeper into the mundane, we more rapidly search for something else to divert our attention – not to hold it, but to tickle it momentarily before we can move onto the next silly trend.
If this is true, if we are finally putting out the lights on the ‘80s for good, and if the concentric circles of trendiness are orbiting tighter and tighter to our cultural axis (whatever the hell that is), it’s likely that crew socks are the harbinger of a ‘90s revival. This is extremely exciting news for anyone born in during the Reagan Administration, but even this will be nothing more than mindless indulgence in the sentimental impulse to which we all subscribe. Still, couldn’t we have started with something cooler, something that showed the take-no-prisoners attitude of that glorious decade? Something like slap bracelets, perhaps? Grunge? Seinfeld? What about self-reliance? The Big Lebowski? Anything but crew socks, damn it!