We are entering a new era (cue space-age music) - the age of the sock.

That's right, socks in sexy stripes and eye-catching argyles are men's accessory of choice this winter.

Ankles never looked so good.

"They add a little flavor to my clothes," said Irving D. Smith, a 54-year-old SEPTA police officer who favors multicolored stripes. "I get lots of compliments on them, especially when I sit down."

So natty.

The focus on manly footwear this fall comes from the British influence on men's clothing, a combination eclectic/preppy look that favors pants hemmed shorter to show off polished shoes and, well, socks. Oddly, the same guys who turned up their noses at fitted suits and skinny jeans are OK jazzing up their wardrobes with swanky footsies, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the New York-based NPD Group.

According to NPD, men's sock sales are up nearly 14 percent: Revenues were $2.3 billion between September 2010 and August 2011, up from $2 billion for the same period ending in August 2010.

"When guys do wear a suit, they aren't wearing ties with them," Cohen explained. "So socks are the new statement pieces. The funny thing is that most retailers haven't caught on. Big-box retailers are still focusing on the basics."

But as we all know, basics are boring.

Enter Steve Jamison of Blue Sole Shoes. Jamison is known around town for selling high-fashion, high-quality socks from such top labels as Robert Graham, Bresciani, and Marcoliani. These socks range in price from $18 to $75 a pair.

When Jamison opened his 1,300-square-foot men's store five years ago, his sock selection was limited to two shelves of cubbyholes that held about 30 pairs. Today there are three additional rows of cubbyholes built into the shop's pumpkin walls for a total of 150 pairs. Jamison is also launching a website, www.bluesolesocks.com.

"We started out selling 500 pairs of socks a year," said Jamison. "This year, we are on point to sell over 2,000."

Among the hot designs: a pair of black socks embroidered with an eye chart; a checkerboard pattern in shades of red, yellow, and orange; and pastel polka dots. (Yes, cool dudes are wearing pink dots.)

Stylish socks aren't new to the men's fashion scene. In fact, specialty socks were part of the fashion arsenal of ancients dating back to Roman times. Sock comes from the Latin soccus, a soft shoe worn by Roman comedic actors. By the eighth century A.D., men were wearing brightly colored socks with their robes.

But socks are not immune to fashion cycles, and that eighth-century boldness was just a passing fad. Throughout subsequent centuries men wore stockings.

In the 1500s, the Rev. William Lee invented a sock-knitting machine in England. He began making hosiery out of cotton, wool, and silk. British aristocrats wore their socks embroidered with emblems; the family crest was a popular decoration.

That faded away too, and later socks for the most part were more functional than fashionable. There have been interesting patterns and initials over the years, but socks have remained neutral for the most part until now. Fashion's recent interest in color has trickled down big time.

So, fellas, think twice before you reach for those black socks. Fashion is hitting way below the belt.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.