NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In popular lore, the well-dressed man charts a steady course: the blue blazer, the gray flannel suit, a solid pair of wingtips.
Truth is, when navigating fashion's choppy waters, most men aren't quite Admiral Nelson. Think of some popular accessories of the past 25 years: Suspenders. Yellow ties. For good or ill, anyone can be a sucker for a trend.
These days, men's fashion is at a crossroads, neither totally casual nor fully formal. So handicapping the next must-have accessory is even trickier than usual. But I'm tempted to bet on fancy socks and extravagant underwear.
Anecdotal evidence is beginning to accumulate:
* A fashion magazine runs a lavish spread that asks, "Are socks the new tie?" It features $85 striped varieties from Domenico Vacca, or subtle red plaid ones from Etro that cost $65.
* The Wall Street Journal reports on fast-rising sales of $68 cotton boxer shorts from Hanro. Men, the story contends, are beginning to want "underwear that fits just so."
* A clothes-conscious friend tells me that he has become obsessed by hosiery.
The last item got my attention.
He is the sort of guy who wears proper hats according to season, gets preoccupied by the cut of a shirt, and whose proudest possession is a tailor-made suit by one of New York's hottest young designers -- stitched for him before the designer got hot.
When such a fellow starts talking sock, we may be onto something.
The money's in the details
Ever since some pop-culture analyst identified this as the "Age of the Metrosexual," the fashion business has been salivating over the prospect of men spending money on items they once considered trivial.
Socks and underwear must rank high on that list.
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"The category is hot," Footwear News observed a few months back. Designers and retailers have become much more aggressive in coming up with new styles and pushing them onto customers.
Whether they'll succeed remains to be seen. About $4.5 billion worth of men's socks are sold annually, according to market researcher NPD Group. But growth last year was barely 1 percent, compared to 7 percent expansion in the women's segment.
In this area, many men (including me) have long felt that quantity trumps quality. Ten pairs of black socks from the Gap -- preferably an outlet -- are worth more than a single pair of silk ones.
Maybe this is the wrong approach. Does the guy who spends thousands of dollars on a Brioni suit really want to wrap $2 of cheap cotton around his feet?
And even for the rest of us who can't afford Brioni, snazzy socks or comfy boxers may be the right little luxury to justify a splurge.
Sure, nobody else can really see them, but are you dressing to please yourself or simply to kiss up to the Man? Anyway, shouldn't the clothing worn closest to your body be the most comfortable?
To get answers to such deep questions, I needed research. So I went shopping, with the delusional notion that I might be able to expense it.
First stop: Hugo Boss in the Time Warner Center. I found beautiful suits, shirts, and ties, but in sockwear? Bupkis. At $20 a pair, no less.
Undaunted, I ventured forth to Fifth Avenue, land of stores that smell like money, or at least credit card debt.
At Bergdorf, I was tempted by a brightly colored line of wool socks by Garrick Anderson, meant to augment the designer's equally colorful shirts. They were "only" $39, which looked like a loss-leader compared to the price of the shirts.
I wandered over to the house brands. I fondled luxurious soft woolens, and crisp, tightly woven cottons. Prices headed up from $50, and I headed out just as quickly.
Darting into the boulevard's other grand stores, I found more of the same: bold colors, luscious fabrics, and prices more absurd than you can imagine. Here a pair of $75 socks, there $80.
Boxers were even worse. One pair of silk ones -- very nice silk, mind you -- topped $100. That led me to calculate that a single day's outfit of socks and underwear would cost more than I paid for all the clothing I was then wearing, including the shoes.
Then it occurred to me: If all these fancy folks were selling such high-end lines, somebody must be buying them.
It just wouldn't be me.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: email@example.com.