Barack Obama socks? Korean boy-band socks? Instant ramen socks? Matching socks for couples? Socks for pets? If you can imagine it, you can find socks in Seoul to match. Socks are fun and affordable and make perfect souvenirs to warm your toes or to bring home to friends.
Most character socks cost less than the equivalent of one US dollar, though they sometimes do fall behind when it comes to durability. As teens become adults, most transition to more mature, one-colour socks, but many continue to wear slip-ons in the workplace, carrying on the importance of socks well into adulthood. In the past few years, sock boutiques have popped up all over Seoul, catering to zany footwear needs with unique designs and much higher quality materials.
Whether you’re shopping for tots or teens, dogs, divas, or of course yourself, here’s our guide to getting your Seoul socks knocked off (or, well, on in this case).
Crazy for socks in Seoul
You don’t have to be in South Korea for long to understand how it’s become one of the world’s leading exporters in the knit socks and hosiery industry. There are sock sets sold at department stores, socks bundled up by rubber bands in markets and socks for unimaginable hosiery emergencies available at every convenience store. Not only is it customary to take off your shoes in homes and many restaurants and businesses in South Korea, but it can also even be considered impolite to show your bare feet in public. Even on the hottest summer day, you’d be hard-pressed to spot a Seoulite in flip-flops.
Character socks, which usually feature a well-known cartoon, figure or logo, are mainly worn by middle- and high-school students who spend long hours at private after-schools in preparation for South Korea’s rigorous College Scholastic Ability Test. To take the strain off these high-pressure study sessions, teens dress as comfortably as possible, sporting sock-exposing slip-ons instead of trainers. Since most Korean students wear mandatory school uniforms during the day, socks have also become a way for students to express their fashion identities.
Socks that feature an easily recognisable person, character, logo or symbol – so-called ‘character socks’ – are really common in South Korea. You’ll see socks imprinted with Star Wars characters, Disney princesses, Pokémon, major brand logos, popular (and unpopular) politicians and more. Character socks can be found in almost every single underground shopping mall and tourist shopping district. Some convenience stores even carry them!
One of the best places to find character socks, in terms of location and selection, is Myeongdong, a neighbourhood in central Seoul known for its bright-lights shopping streets. Here, character socks are sold in sock-studded kiosks or small shops (operated by elderly ladies). These shops normally have a sign outside that boasts ‘Made in Korea’ and are packed with hundreds of socks. Myeongdong also a great place to find socks themed around K-pop music, particularly with faces of the most famous K-pop group members. Most vendors offer 11 pairs of socks for ₩10,000 (US$8.75) and push customers to pay in cash (though cards are also accepted at a number of these outlets).
The most competitive prices for socks are found in Namdaemun Market, one of the largest traditional markets in Seoul. While you’ll find carts piled up with bundles of plain white socks for adults, Namdaemun also boasts a wide range of clothes and accessories for children; the Children’s Clothing Shopping Center near Exit 6 of Hoehyeon Station is a good place to hunt for smaller sizes. Inside the large shopping centre, there are a few vendors that specialise in socks for babies and children under ten. Unfortunately, these vendors offer few choices for gender-neutral socks and many of the socks are marketed for girls with ribbons and lace. One boutique shop offering socks for all sexes is Shop, Socks, located at Namdaemun Market 8-gil 17. Shop, Socks offers lots of bright colours and comfy textures perfect for young boys and girls on the go.
Although plain white socks do still reign supreme among many adults, there is a growing range of options for the fashion-forward. Seoul’s first design sock store is MSMR (also known as Ladies and Gentlemen), a sock brand with a shop at the foot of Namsan Mountain. MSMR socks come packaged in rectangular boxes like fancy playing cards and are made from high-quality materials, such as angora. Åland, a Korean store with several locations around Seoul, has a big accessories section featuring a colourful collection of socks by local designers at reasonable prices. Those visiting Seoul for an extended period of time may find that the best options for socks are online. Sock brand, Sockstaz, posts their distinctive designs as well as their pop-up locations on Instagram at @sockstaz_official.
With the growing popularity of owning pets in South Korea over the past few years, there has also been a boom in the availability of clothing and accessories for dogs and cats. Doggy socks have become hugely popular to help prevent puppy slippages on the hardwood floors of Korean homes or out in the elements, especially during the country’s freezing winters. Pet store boutiques like Dorothy Pet Shop (22 Yanghwa-ro 18an-gil, Seogyo-dong) usually have a good stock of doggy socks on hand, but they’re even available in the pet section of most Daiso stores – South Korea’s equivalent of a 99-cent shop.
South Korean sock and shoe etiquette
While most Seoulites aren’t going to be offended by visitors not knowing the rules, understanding a little bit of foot-iquette can go a long way. In many restaurants, teahouses, temples and smaller guesthouses around South Korea, and especially in people’s homes, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering. Usually there will be a sinbaljang(신발장) – dedicated shoe shelf – somewhere near the door and sometimes indoor slippers are provided. Other times, for example at many Buddhist temples, you’ll simply be expected to take off your shoes outside the main door.
It’s a good idea to have fresh and clean socks on (great excuse for a Myeongdong shopping excursion!), or carry a pair with you to slip on, as going barefoot in these situations could be seen as impolite or disrespectful. Likewise, if you’re visiting lots of temples or doing a templestay, pack a pair of slip-on shoes, as you’ll be taking them on and off a lot. Finally, it should go without saying, but never put your feet up (shod or not) on furniture or seats in public places like trains, and try to avoid showing the bottoms of your feet anytime.