Cultural notebook: happy birthday Dr Marten

I bought my first pair of Dr Martens at 16, and own few other types of shoe. But taking them to the Arctic Circle was a step too far
November 17, 2010
These are not Sam Leith’s Dr Martens

I have only made one fashion decision in my life and I have stuck to it—which, according to those who take an interest in these things, is quite the wrong thing to do. That decision was, aged 16, to buy a pair of black, ten-hole Dr Martens boots. Two decades on, those boots, or at least their eight-hole descendents, are still on my feet. And this year, I heard on the radio the other day, the boots themselves are half a century old

It is nothing of an exaggeration to say that—except for one pair of flip-flops and a pair of patented “anti-smell trainers” lent me years ago for the purposes of an inane feature in a newspaper—I own no other shoes. I seldom ever have, replacing my boots once every couple of years when the stitching comes loose or a hole appears in the upper where the leather flexes. Like the stopped clock that’s right twice per day, I am in fashion once every couple of years.

The Dr Martens boot can and does go everywhere. Sockless and trailing its laces, it makes a tolerable slipper while still being suitable for a trip to the corner shop. Tightly laced, it goes on muddy country walks. A quick wipe with a flannel equips it to be teamed with my dinner jacket and black tie for the Man Booker prize. It won’t mark a tennis court, either—I know that, strictly, it’s not the ideal athletic footwear but then, I am not the ideal athlete.

I took my Docs to the Arctic Circle to write a feature on the Royal Marines’ cold-weather training in northern Norway. Until my hosts lent me a pair of the decidedly more robust combat boots that the commandos wear, it was in my Docs that I shuffled around on the pack-ice watching young men letting off mortars. Soon afterwards, I was having my feet assessed for frostnip by the unit’s CO. My Docs were pronounced “civvy,” which is only one step up (or possibly one step down) from “chad” (a reference to the suboptimal toy maker Chad Valley) as an evaluative epithet for equipment. Like costume jewellery diamonds, Guy Ritchie and newly- cooked fudge, Dr Martens are not as hard as they look.

The soles are too rubbery to administer a properly vicious kicking, and steel toecaps (I’ve had that sort too) are just for show. Moulded into the soles is their boast of being oil, fat, acid, petrol and alkali-resistant—but such oil, fat, acid, petrol and alkali as the average shoe comes into contact with aren’t generally a threat to their integrity. Eek! An alkali!

What do Docs mean, though? That’s the sort of question columns like this are supposed to ask and it’s one not easy to settle.

We all, of course, know the story in outline. It begins with the Newton of the boot, a German army doctor called Klaus Märtens who, in 1945, (when you might think he’d have other things to worry about) designed an air-cushioned sole to alleviate the pain from a skiing injury. After the war, he set up in business, and manufacture in Britain started in 1960 when he sold the rights to the Northampton shoemaker R Griggs.

Docs were functional shoes rather than fashion items to start with—but then in the 1970s, Pete Townshend put Elton John in that colossal pair of cherry reds for the film of the Who’s rock opera Tommy (standing nearly five feet tall, they were about the same size as Elton himself), and they were off.

Their most notorious incarnation was as the “bovver boot”: the 14-hole cherry reds worn below the rolled drainpipes of the skinhead. Children of the Sun, Max Schaefer’s recent novel about gay neo-Nazis, quotes the defunct queer zine Square Peg: “[the skinhead’s] clothes have not the sameness of a uniform, but of a hide; they are anti-clothes, reduced to the function of an animal’s coat; his boots are his hooves.”

That history has been comprehensively given the hoof. Like Trafalgar Square punks, the DMs that brighten Carnaby Street are gaudy tourist baubles. You can buy velcro DMs, DMs for toddlers. There are “Hello Kitty” DMs, for pity’s sake.

In the 1990s indie girls would team them with floral skirts. These were the shoes that the floppy-haired guitarists of every “shoegazer” band were gazing at. There is no teenage girl on earth who does not, seemingly, own a pair of the silver glittery sort. One former city editor of the Daily Telegraph was unfailingly to be seen in DM shoes.

My theory, then, is this: they have at last achieved what they long claimed in vain. Their marketing boast is that they are anti-marketing; their fashion boast that they are anti-fashion. But in their 50 years, Dr Martens have meant so much to so many utterly different tribes that they really have succeeded in overcoming fashion: they literally mean nothing at all. So much the better for them. Happy birthday.