Socks step out into the fashion limelight

Source: Statement Sockwear

Socks won't be the punchline of jokes this holiday season.

Once known as an often-dreaded holiday or birthday gift handed out by thrifty grandmas, socks are having their fashion moment.

According to market research company NPD Group, socks have become a statement piece, and sales growth in the category has outpaced that of the broader apparel market for the past two years. Last year, sales were up 8 percent from the prior year, making socks a $5.6 billion industry, NPD said.

Read MoreIn the 'funk' gone? Retail signs mixed

Men are mostly responsible for the shift, with 73 percent of men wearing socks almost every day compared with only 41 percent of women.

"Men are driving the growth in this category because over the past few years, socks have become yet another outlet for expressing the extra splash of pattern and color they seek," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD.

As an added bonus, men don't need a fashion degree to make the trend work for them. There are virtually no rules when it comes to socks, so bold colors and patterns with a suit or casual wear work no matter what else you're wearing on top or bottom.

It's not just specific retailers cashing in on the sock craze anymore. "Early on you could really find novelty socks (only) in some of the better specialty and department stores, but over the past years, the reason why it's grown is because you can get them anywhere from Target to the department stores. It's now become a very commercialized commodity item," said Cohen.

Read MoreHow millennials, Latinos will shape retail in 25 years

But there still are plenty of boutiques and specialty online retailers that specialize only in selling socks. is one example. The online retailer was started in 2011 as a fun competition between friends Ryan Preisner and Adam Whitmore. At the time, they didn't expect to have a brilliant business plan on their hands, but they have since expanded to two brands, Statement Sockwear and BoldSocks, as a way to keep up with consumer demand for socks with unique patterns and colors.

"Our first year's sales, in most people's minds, were quite pathetic, but we have seen nonstop growth ever since. Our forecasted sales this year will likely exceed 26,000 percent growth over our first year's sales," said Ryan Roff, co-founder of Statement Sockwear.

Source: Statement Sockwear

On average, men spend more for a pair of socks than women and the type of sock they buy is equally divided between both casual and athletic, according to NPD.

Read MoreHow shoppers are trimming holiday budgets

"Our men's business has continued to grow very naturally on and now accounts for 96.1 percent of our total sales," Roff said. "As we have expanded our men's offering, we have seen a direct correlation between additional SKUs leading to positive growth."

"Men embrace the bold socks movement to show they care about their style and to add personality to their outfit," said Roff, adding it's a much better "water cooler" conversation starter than the weather.

Lower gas, holiday sales boost?

However, women also are making those purchases as they choose to embrace the trend and buy socks as groomsmen's gifts and for the other important men in their lives.

Read MoreThe hottest global retail market is...

And while women tend to purchase socks for themselves based on value instead of fashion, there still could be a missed opportunity in getting women to adopt the same trend, Cohen said.

"Leggings and active bottoms have been a big part of women's wear but women are not excluded from the desire to wear fun socks, the makers just got sidetracked elsewhere. They labeled it as a men's trend but really women are looking for it as well," said Cohen.

Meanwhile, the trend continues to find its fans. A group of loyal BoldSocks' customers share their footwear fashion picks each week on Twitter with the hashtag #boldfriday.

So heading into the holiday shopping season that's a good guide for gift giving: when in doubt give socks, as long as they're statement socks. It's likely it won't be met with a forced grin and an obligatory, "Thanks, that's just what I needed."

(CORRECTION: The online retailer was started in 2011 as a fun competition between friends Ryan Preisner and Adam Whitmore. A earlier version incorrectly named the friends.)