Sock vs. Stocking: What’s the difference? (And who cares?)

sock vs stocking

It is not uncommon to hear people, especially those of an older generation, use the terms “sock” and “stocking” interchangeably. Many of us probably think that they are the same item, and maybe “stocking” is just the old-fashioned version.

What is the difference between a sock and a stocking? The biggest difference between a sock and a stocking is in the length of the material, with socks usually being much shorter. Another important difference is the historical progression of the items, with stockings coming first and generally being out of style today compared to socks.

Throughout their history, socks and stockings have also been used differently by genders. While they may seem trivial, the differences between socks and stockings are actually quite important. They have different purposes, so you want to be able to choose the right one for your situation.

Differences Between Socks and Stockings

Despite their similarities, socks and stockings are different, and they have different purposes. They are not as interchangeable as you might assume.

Purposes of Socks vs. Stockings

fancy socks

Although socks and stockings do share some of the same purposes, their distinctions are important. Socks are usually thicker than stockings, and they may be used to protect the feet from the environment. Your feet are one of the sweatiest areas (article) of your body, and socks can help deal with the sweat.

Socks also can help with comfort. With certain shoes, socks (article) can provide a barrier between the skin and the shoe’s material. This barrier can help prevent rubs, blisters, or cuts from hurting the feet. 

Stockings, however, are often meant to keep the legs warm when wearing a skirt or dress. In some modern contexts, stockings are even worn to attract sexual attention. In other senses, stockings are used to create a certain stylistic look. 

Sizes of Socks vs. Stockings

size of sock vs stocking (1)

The most notable difference between socks and stockings is the size disparity. Socks are much shorter, with most hitting the middle of a person’s calf or lower. Socks come in many styles as well, such as the ankle, crew, or no-show socks. 

Stockings, in contrast, are cut much higher. Stockings typically reach the middle or upper area of the thigh. Because of this longer design, stockings can sometimes be confused with tights or pantyhose since you may not see the top of the stockings. 

Sock vs. Stocking Materials

Girls wearing different colored socks

To accommodate their different purposes, stockings and socks are also often made of different materials. Socks can be made out of many materials, including cotton, wool, nylon, and even silk. In today’s modern world, you can often find socks made out of materials for a specific purpose, such as sweat-wicking or heat insulation. 

Stockings are typically stretchier than most socks, especially because of the elastic that is often used in their production. Stockings will frequently appear to be much thinner than socks, and the material is usually more see-through

Typical materials for stockings are silk, rayon, or nylon. You may see other blends of material, but the fabric needs some sort of stretch to it. Stockings go up much higher on the leg than socks, so the fabric must be able to stretch over a larger area. 

Appearances of Socks vs. Stockings

appearance of sock vs stocking

Depending on what kind of socks are worn, the appearance of socks can be in many forms. For lower-cut socks, they may not be visible underneath pant legs or inside shoes. This may be the desired look, which is why ankle and crew socks are popular today. 

Other types of socks may have specific designs or patterns that people want to show off, so there will be less of an effort to conceal the socks. This is common in some school uniforms and sports team uniforms. 

Socks come in any color imaginable. There are equally as many patterns and designs. People may prefer plain socks in one solid color to best match their outfits, but this is not always a necessity.

Stockings are typically much more similar in their designs. Stockings traditionally come in neutral colorsBlack and nude stockings are especially common, but you may be able to find more color options in today’s markets. 

Stockings also are not usually patterned as much as socks are. Sometimes, stockings will have a design that is created by having areas with more threads of the same color and material to make a subtle pattern.

Stocking patterns may be in the shape of diamonds, plaid, or in fishnet style, which has a wide knit to create a look similar to actual fish nets. Most of the time, stocking patterns will be all one color, but you may be able to find some that incorporate accent colors as well. 

Wearing Socks vs. Stockings

wearing socks vs stockings

Socks and stockings also are worn a bit differently. Like mentioned earlier, socks do not usually come up high on a person’s leg. Because of this, the top part of a sock is usually sewn a little tighter to hold the sock in place, but proper-fitting socks will typically not slide down.

Stockings will not stay up on their own. This is one of the biggest differences between socks and stockings. Stockings are held up in a number of ways. Stockings have a band at the top that is meant to hold the stockings up, whether supported or alone. 

Traditionally, women wore garters or garter belts to hold their stockings in place on their thighs. A garter belt is like a piece of underwear that sits around the waist and has suspenders that are clipped to the top bands of stockings. Garters are made of stretchy materials that slide on top of the stockings to tightly hold them against the leg. 

More modern designs for stockings have included elastic bands at the top of the stockings, specifically to hold them in place. Some of the modern designs for stockings that use elastic in the bands have the elastic on the inside of the stockings so that it will grip the skin better. 

History of Socks vs. Stockings

Medieval dancer stocking

Some of the most important distinctions between socks and stockings are rooted in their histories. While their development and use overlap at some times, the history is where the big differences become clear.

History of Socks: Early Use

Evidence (article) suggests that socks were created and worn as early as the 8th century by the Greeks. These socks were quite different from what associate with the word, though. Early materials for socks included matted animal fur.

Early socks were knitted by hand, and the process took quite a while. Because the process was so time-consuming, socks became more of a fashion symbol, implying wealth than just a functional piece of clothing. (article)

By the middle of the 16th century, socks were common garments. Despite their popularity, however, they were still only made by hand. This slow process was not rectified until 1589 when the first machine for creating socks and stockings was made. (book)

History of Socks: Continued and Modern Use

Socks began to replace stockings in popularity for men in the early 21st century. Fashion styles had started to change, and men’s pants were not as short, so long stockings were not as needed for warmth (article) as older styles with shorter hems. 

At this point, (book) women were still mostly wearing stockings for modesty and warmth. Socks were still considered to be better suited for men and men’s attire. 

Of course, in today’s world, socks are extremely common for men and women. Some areas of the world do not see as much of a need for socks, but the western world has largely embraced socks as a staple of every person’s wardrobe. 

Many people today even feel that going barefoot (article) is in bad taste. They may feel that socks are almost at the same level of privacy as other undergarments, but this is not really the dominant view. For the most part, socks are common for all people, regardless of age or gender. 

There are even socks made today to help with health issues. Compression socks (article) may be worn to help with certain blood conditions or varicose veins. There are even socks that are designed to be worn, especially by people with diabetes. 

The success of these types of “health” socks is not completely agreed upon by the scientific community since they are not always worn correctly, but even the world’s sock science continues to grow. 

History of Stockings: Early Use

Noblemans stocking status symbol

Stockings became popular in the early 10th and 11th centuries, and they were often worn as a status symbol. Socks alone were time-consuming to make, but stockings took even longer. Men of high social status, such as kings, lords, or nobles, would wear stockings at or above the knee as a reflection of their wealth.

It was also common for men of this social standing to have their stockings made out of expensive materials, such as silk. Since women mostly wore long dresses and gowns at this period of history, stockings were rarely needed. This was especially the case for women of high social standing since they usually wore intricate gowns with lots of underskirts. 

As the centuries went on, stockings became more accessible to people with less wealth. By the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, stockings became more of a functional garment. Long stockings would be worn under pants by men and under skirts or dresses by women for warmth. Stockings also became associated with modesty for the women who wore them. 

Stockings: Continued and Modern Use

Different colored nylon stockings.

By the early 21st century, stockings became primarily a women’s garment. As mentioned in the section about the later use of socks, men’s style began to shift toward pants with longer hems, eliminating the need for long stockings. 

Women continued to wear stockings, despite the shorter hemlines that accompanied the flapper style of the 1920s. 

Nylon was not used in the production of stockings until 1939. (book) That year, a company called DuPont unveiled the first stockings made out of nylon at the New York World’s Fair. The nylon stockings made by DuPont were loved by the women who wore them. These nylon stockings were much more comfortable, held up longer, and were considerably stretchier. 

Women actually began to riot (article) over these nylon stockings a couple of years later. The United States had joined World War II, and DuPont stopped manufacturing nylon stockings so that they could produce other products that contributed to the war efforts. After the war, the nylon stockings DuPont produced were limited in number and in high demand, which led to thousands of American women forming angry crowds.

Stockings began to wane in popularity as the 21st century continued, especially after the invention of pantyhose, which many women preferred for comfort. Nowadays, stockings are almost exclusively worn by women or as part of a costume. 

Stockings have also gotten a sexual connotation in recent decades. There have been increased fetishes of women who wear “thigh highs” with a short skirt or dress that shows the band at the top of the stockings, especially if it is lacy. 

Socks vs. Stockings vs. Pantyhose vs. Tights

Another confusing factor that sometimes leads people to interchangeably referring to socks and stockings as the same garment is the use of two other similar pieces: pantyhose and tights. Often, it can seem like all these garments are the same, except for socks. This is because socks in the modern world are designed so differently from stockings, pantyhose, and tights, whereas the other three have a similar look at times. 

Pantyhose vs. Stockings

pantyhose vs stocking

Pantyhose can be thought of as the ensuing replacement for stockings due to their popularity among women. Many women were frustrated with the struggle to keep stockings from falling down their legs; dealing with garters and garter belts was a hassle for many women.

As the 21st century continued, there was an increased need for a form of leg coverage that would be comfortable, stay up, and go with the changing trends of women’s fashion. During the 1940s and the 1950s, some movie and stage producers would sew (article) female actresses’ stockings to their undergarments

The idea of having leg coverage that was attached to undergarments began to grow in popularity. In 1953, the first type of pantyhose was developed, although it was not released for sales until 1959 when a competitor’s product was also designed. This even caused legal action (article) to follow to determine which inventor had the rights to the product ideas. 

Pantyhose continued to become increasingly popular in the following decades. The use of spandex allowed for an even more comfortable, durable, and giving design that women loved. Most types of pantyhose are meant to be similar colors to the skin, and they may be matte or sheer.  

Following the sudden trend of miniskirts, which were too short for stockings, pantyhose began to sell more than stockings. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pantyhose became a necessity in a woman’s wardrobe, especially for women in the professional workplace. 

Ultimately, though, even pantyhose began to fall out of style. While they are still usually preferred instead of stockings, most women opt to not have any form of leg coverage under dresses or skirts in today’s western societies. Some women may choose to wear pantyhose for a professional look or to hide scars, blemishes, or varicose veins. 

Tights vs. Stockings

tights vs stockings

Another similar garment to stockings and pantyhose is tights. Like pantyhose, tights are not usually confused with socks because they are designed so differently, but there can be confusion between stockings and tights. 

Tights are made of cloth, like pantyhose and stockings, but they are usually much thicker than pantyhose. In some cases, the word “tights” might be used to describe stockings made of a finer material like silk, but they technically are not tights.

Like pantyhose, but unlike stockings, tights have a top that is like that of underwear; that it is, they go all the way up the leg. Many pairs of tights actually rise to the belly button or higher, especially if they have a “control top” design. 

Tights typically come in way more colors, patterns, and designs than pantyhose, which are usually neutral or skin color. Whereas pantyhose is often worn because it has a more seamless appearance, tights are often worn to be part of an outfit or fashion statement. 

An easy way to think about tights is to imagine them as a mix between pantyhose and stockings. They are a middle-weight of fabric, and they have traits of both stockings and pantyhose. 

Final Thoughts

You probably never would have guessed that there are so many intricacies to the discussion of socks vs. stockings, but hopefully, you are now able to see that there is a multitude of distinctions between the two types of garments.

Plus, if you thought that stockings, pantyhose, and tights were also, all the same, you were able to learn about their distinctions as well. Now you can confidently buy the right type of leg coverage without wondering what each product is used for.

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