It may seem odd that the collection of bones, cartilage and skin that links the leg to the foot has become a primary focus of style fascination, but it shouldn’t. Kevin Braddock extols the sartorial virtues of “ankling”:
Ankles: do you show yours? Do you think about them? Do you wear expressive socks, ones you want people to see? Do you sweat long and hard over the turn-ups of your jeans: width, angle, height-above-shoe and number of folds? Do you yearn to cast aside your inhibitions, overturn the soggy orthodoxies of British style and (atmospherics permitting) wear loafers, boat shoes or espadrilles the way nature intended them — sockless, shameless and liberated?
It’s a furtive fetish, “ankling”, but if you enjoy it, you’re far from alone. Deckhand, clamdigger, Tintin, monk, playboy, tweed cyclist, junglist, breezy Rive Gauche flâneur or Sean Connery lounging shoreside in those Louis Vuitton ads — they’re anklists all. There have always been men who’ve known that a footloose, very private kind of liberation comes from revealing or confecting the interzone south of the calves and north of the feet, currently the most exciting layer in the lasagne of modern masculine style.
Small and distant in anatomical terms, ankles are nevertheless big and now. Contemplating the prevailing look in the offices of Soho, shop floors of Manchester or the rivieras of Shoreditch, the eye is drawn inexorably downwards today: bright pops of Burlington colour between a brogue and the finely turned hemline of some selvage drainpipes; austere grey denims notched into the neck of ankle-length bovver boots; and unrepentantly naked ankles in candy-coloured Cons, Tod’s, mocs or Docksides on a pub-side pavement one evening — wow, doesn’t it look fun, like you’re Alain Delon in Plein Soleil, or Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday? It feels nice to show a bit of leg — to discover a hitherto neglected niche in the everyday wardrobe, then cultivate, adorn and put on display.
It may seem odd that the collection of bones, cartilage and skin that links the leg to the foot has become a primary focus of style fascination, but it shouldn’t. Style for men today is a matter of intense focus on tiny details: the breast pocket garlanded with silk squares, hankies or pens, or the wrist ennobled with cuffs, links and watches.
Nor is it odd when you consider that, a few decades ago, it was the hairy chest’s moment in the limelight. The medallion man’s deep-V chest rug, framed by an open-necked shirt, was the most pronounced and unambiguous of sexual signalling systems. More recently, when we tried to come over as Zen warriors and beachside shoguns, pumped up six packs and tattooed biceps performed the same function.
But in this astringent, hemmed in and hiked up era of natty office-nerd style, the ankle — naked or be-socked, exposed and above all referred to — is the fascinator du jour. Ankles are modest, un-shouty, perhaps even a bit subversive: winking little beacons of fun at the root of a look which functions like a code known only to insiders: “So, you’re an ankle man. You like to feel the breeze around the ankles. You think about your socks. Me too.”
Naturally, style rangers have long known that you can say things with your socks that you can’t say with anything else. Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, made visible red socks his signature, impishly conveying fun in the constipated world of diplomacy. Snappy Italians enjoy matching their striped Gallo socks to their striped Gallo ties, while the newsreader Jon Snow delights in mismatching the two. But natty socks are only the start of what can be a profound and deeply grounding relationship between a man and his talocrural joints.
Ankling may have been everywhere for the last couple of seasons, but it’s not exactly new. In 1989, extemporising on the trend for voluminous flares, leading “baggy” avatars Ian Brown and John Squire of The Stone Roses told the NME, “Trousers look better if they’re long. You’ve got to have lots of crumples on the way down to your shoes.” “They have to crumple,” Brown conjectured. “You just can’t have half-mast trousers.”
They were, of course, only reacting to a prior trend for half-mast trousers that subsequent looks paraphrased. Press shots taken in 1986 for the then massive jazz-funk boy band Curiosity Killed the Cat showed beanpole pin-up Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot in white jeans, pin-tucked a good four inches above his tasselled loafers. He was wearing white sports socks, too. While Mr Volpeliere-Pierrot’s idiosyncratic dance moves in the “Down to Earth” video convey an enviably self-expressive approach to choreography, so too did his hiked up keks infer a genuine, life’s-a-beach joie de vivre.
On the cover of their 1989 À Paris EP, meanwhile, Style Councillors Mick Talbot and Paul Weller were discovered channelling La Dolce Vita in the foreground of the Eiffel Tower, the keyboardist’s red socks set off by a scandalous combo of white trousers and slip-ons, the former Jam frontman rejecting socks altogether and pairing brown loafers with slim cream slacks. Recherché, non?
It may or may not be true that some of the most committed Wellerists used carpenter’s calipers to gauge the precise distance, in millimetres, of turn-up-above-shoe, as decreed by
the Word of Mod. However, a glance at Weller’s immaculately contrived loafers/Levi’s/white socks get-up on the cover of the 1984 album Café Bleu suggests a truly rigorous, thought through, perhaps even philosophical approach to ankling.
With the baggy revolution just round the corner, this painstakingly louche “À Paris” sensibility would not last, though it endured for a while. In the early Nineties, reports on London’s raggamuffin tribes in The Face magazine also showed the capital’s yoots throwing shapes with their Chipie and Chevignon jeans neatly rolled up several inches above their Travel Fox hi-tops. So, too, in the junglist raves of the mid-to-late Nineties, did partygoers pull one leg of their jeans up to just below the knee in order to express something or other. (By the way, the fixed-gear cyclists coagulating in Shoreditch in recent years do likewise, so as to avoid chain oil on the jeans. Apparently.)
This side of the millennium it was, of course, the American designer Thom Browne whose radically foreshortened suit trousers, after a seeming aeon of flappy, boot-cut dominance in legwear, articulated men’s repressed desire to go high and naked below the shin. In 2006, New York magazine interviewed the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Designer of the Year, discovering him sitting on a leather sofa at Soho House with “about four inches of ankle visible on each leg, and he’s not wearing socks”.
It doesn’t take much to create a revolution in the sober world of men’s tailoring, let’s face it, but Thom Browne’s beautifully constructed shrunken pants, in addition to making the wearer look like Tom Thumb, were also a conduit to a powerful imaginative state: you may be in the office managing some PowerPoint slides, but in your head you’re that young scamp again, skipping between rock pools with a bucket and spade. (This is pure fashion speculation, by the way, but surely the unspoken influence on Mr Browne’s decidedly nerdy breeches was that unfortunate primary school boy whose mother couldn’t let out his trousers as fast as his legs were growing. You know the one — the unwitting latter-day style icon whose growth spurts you could count in phantom hemlines on his trouser leg. Fashion, eh?)
So, if ankling isn’t precisely new, it’s extremely now. For most men it’s perhaps a step too far to reach for the full Sonny Crockett — your cocaine-white slacks riding up to reveal a tanned ankle while your espadrille rests on the bumper of a Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365. But there are smaller steps on the road to liberation.
In Manchester, the baggy heartland of trouser crumples, “We like desert boots with a nice bright Burlington sock poking out of the top,” says Steve Sanderson, co-founder of menswear boutique Oi Polloi. “Never mind rolling up trousers: it’s elasticated hems on chinos, worn with Toms.” (Although not year-round: “Lads wearing Toms in the freezing cold middle of winter, no socks… this is not good,” he adds.)
Ankling may seem to be a fashion whim, but it’s more than that. Turn-ups, short slacks, white socks or just no socks at all — it’s a feeling as much as a look, the expression of a romantic relationship with your fantasy self. The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone; the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone; the ankle bone’s connected to a dream of being someone quite different: a clam-digging urchin, fleet-footed Ibiza deckhand or smooth Portofino playboy, idling around a place which has never known puddles.
Ankles are today’s vital erogenous zone, and ankling is a subtle and unlikely way of communicating enviability, liberation and fun. Plenty
of women find men’s ankles attractive and plenty of men do, too, which is to say that ankling is a sexual signalling system that’s straight, gay, macho, metro and retro all at the same time.
Roll up, roll up — summer’s here.