by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Change of season is the perfect excuse for those of us interested in such things to vary our methods of self-indulgence. Fall is when iGents crow with relief at being able to break out their patterned tweed jackets, intricately knit sweaters, and flannel trousers. And winter, whether in Rockridge or Reykjavik, provides the excuse to open this year’s crop of cashmere socks.

I say “this year” because for most purposes, they might as well be disposable. They’re a wonderful private luxury: no matter how high you hem your trousers, cashmere socks’ texture will look like any other wool. Private, too, because most of us are, or should be, embarrassed to wear something so expensive that wears out so quickly. 

Cashmere socks are impossible to logically justify. A nice cashmere sweater will feel wonderfully soft, far softer than lambswool, and can last decades if properly cleaned and maintained. But socks? In my experience, there’s no truth to the legend that cashmere is warmer than wool and no good way to compare the two, for the warmth of a garment will depend on how tightly spun the yarn is and how densely knit it is, among other things. And most cashmere socks are knit quite loosely, the better to look and feel ethereally light and soft in a shop and to use less of the quite expensive cashmere per sock. They will feel like clouds and dissipate like them too. Even those that are far more tightly knit, like the precisely sized cashmere and silk sock pictured here, will thin out just when you appreciate them most. These were made by a defunct French sockmaker for one of the unique little Paris shops I’ve written about in my book. Ironically, I am certain they spent far longer in the shop, as it gradually declined over the decades, than they did in my sock drawer. I admit I knew going in that silk is also a terribly fragile material for hosiery, no matter what Mitzi Kapture might say. The makers of the ludicrously expensive hand-knit cable-knit cashmere socks that I’ve had a fatal curiosity about for a while even warn that their seductively textured creations are neither designed nor intended for heavy wear. The shortest-lived luxury socks in my experience seem to be the Gallo cashmere blend socks, which feel wonderful but have a half-life like one of those lab-created elements that don’t have an IUPAC name yet. 

And yet, once we grow out of the outfit-of-the-day subculture we often find that the best indulgences are the private ones. Cashmere socks are positively Lucullan – no one else will be viewing them up close or touching them unless you’re into that sort of stuff. (Of course, who touches a cashmere coat, except my Goth college roommate? Then again, those do last longer than socks.) Their short life compounds their extravagance. And extravagance they are, since cashmere socks of any quality are liable to be far more expensive than good-quality socks in wool. 

One economy sockmakers propose is to buy multiple pairs of the same socks, so that as soon as one sock of a pair is no longer wearable, its mate can remarry a member of the unworn pair. Then again, buying multiple pairs of expensive socks only adds to the extravagance. Still, none of us live in households where socks are darned and repaired anymore, and cashmere socks tend to melt away in worn places so that it would be difficult to close a hole in them. I confess that I purchased dozens of cashmere Pantherella socks long ago when I came across a cache of them at a discount shop that had them at clearance prices, so I’ve occasionally tried the sock remarriage trick, although I’ve found that widowed socks seem to perish of grief not too long after their mates.

Of course, in today’s flaking gilded age of plenty for the very few cashmere is not the height of indulgence. A few brands sell socks in vicuña for even more money, while one brand achieved fame selling a pair of socks made out of something called cervelt, the hair of a red deer, for over $1,000. I am not sure that socks made out of burning money would be that comfortable. More seriously, as wonderful as these materials may be, their rarity rather than their softness drives the price, and their price drives their prestige among people who care about that sort of thing. Cashmere is richer than I should be daring, and that occasional, accessible, quickly diminishing seasonal indulgence.