The most-gifted piece of apparel during the holidays? Sweaters? Nope. Scarves? No. Ties or hats? Not those either.
Socks. The dowdy necessity long regarded as one of the most boring gifts ever, is suddenly cool.
Sales of socks - particularly funky, patterned, novel varieties - are on the upswing, as more Americans look to express themselves through their footwear, according to market research firm NPD Group. And as the holidays near, retailers say we're approaching peak buying season: Roughly 20 percent of sock purchases take place in December.
"There are no rules anymore: Color explosions, crazy themes, patterns without any rhyme or reason," said Gary Henkin, senior vice president of global sales at Polo Ralph Lauren Hosiery, which includes the popular brand Hot Sox. "Socks have become the ultimate impulse buy."
A decade ago, he says, men might have looked to unique ties to express their personalities. But as business-casual becomes the norm in the workplace - and athletic-inspired loungewear takes hold everywhere else - people are increasingly turning to socks to make a statement.
More than 253 million pairs of socks were bought as presents last holiday season, outperforming shirts, sleepwear and sweaters, according to data from the NPD group. And many retailers say this holiday season is shaping up to be the busiest one yet for sock sales.
"Oh my goodness gracious, absolutely, socks are an enormous revenue center for us," said Michele Cosby, owner of Chocolate Moose, a novelty gift shop in downtown Washington. "Christmas and Hanukkah are far and away the biggest sock times for us."
Currently on the store's shelves: 111 varieties, including pairs covered in rolls of toilet paper, pizza slices, cows, penguins and Michelangelo's David that sell for $6 to $12. Cosby says holiday demand for socks has been particularly pronounced in recent years, as customers look for inexpensive and practical gifts. Many people, she said, end up buying socks as Secret Santa gifts for colleagues or relatives.
"People are hard to buy for. They have everything," she said. "Socks are practical -- they're useful and fun, and something you can get for someone even if you don't know them very well."
At Joy of Socks, a Massachusetts-based website that carries 2,500 varieties of socks, nearly half of the company's annual sales take place in the last couple of months of the year. The company begins stocking holiday socks in August.
"It does seem awfully early, but guess what? That's when people start buying them," owner Suzanne Hawes said. "By October, it's full-force."
This year's varieties include blue knee socks that say "Mazel Tov," as well as socks with sledding penguins, kittens in stockings and dogs spinning dreidels. Hawes, who founded the company out of her apartment in 1998, says it's not uncommon for customers to buy one of each type of holiday sock to give as gifts.
One of the company's best-selling lines, by Blue Q, comes adorned with sayings like "Duchess of Sassytown" and "Well, this sucks," as well as more profanity-laced designs.
"It's a way to express yourself," Hawes said. "Sometimes having the 'f'-word on your socks, even if nobody else can see them, is enough to get you through the day."