A Subcultural History of Dr. Martens

Dr. Martens AirWair tag
Image credit: Kilian Seiler on Unsplash

Last week marked iconic shoe brand Dr. Martens’ IPO. The brand is now being publicly traded for the first time some 60 years after their first boot came off the production line.

In fact, that boot’s creation is indelibly time-stamped in its name: The famous 1460 is so called for first being produced on April 1st, 1960 (1/4/60). The shoe version of the same design, the 1461, duly appeared one year later. 

Black Dr. Marten 1460 boots
The Dr. Martens 1460 boot
Image credit: Kilian Seiler on Unsplash
A pair of 1461 work shoes
Image credit: Vinicius Löw on Unsplash

These models were made by Griggs shoemakers in Wollaston, Northamptonshire. The company had been around since 1901, but in the late 1950s it acquired the licence to produce shoes that would come to redefine its business and just about every British subculture for decades to come. 

Griggs started making shoes that were originally conceived by Dr. Klaus Maertens in 1945. The 25-year-old soldier was convalescing in post-war Munich following a skiing accident which left him with a broken foot. Finding his standard-issue military boots to be unsatisfactory — and no doubt drawing on his experience working as a cobbler as a youth — Maertens designed a new air-cushioned sole for his boots that would be easier on his injury than the then-ubiquitous hard leather variety. With a prototype in hand, Maertens partnered with another doctor named Herbert Funck and they were off to the races. 

The first group to adopt the shoe might come as a surprise in light of later developments. Since comfort was paramount to the design, it found early success as a gardening shoe among elderly women. That’s right, older ladies with a fondness for flowerbeds proved to be the first Docs fans.

Early Dr. Martens would prove popular among working and service people for similar reasons. A comfortable work shoe — and one that retailed for £2 — felt revelatory and DMs became a go-to shoe for miners, factory workers, and labourers of all kinds. They were soon incorporated into the uniforms of many service personnel, including postal-, railway-, and Underground workers. Even the police wore Docs, albeit with the instruction that the instantly-recognisable yellow welt stitching be covered with black polish.

The name ‘Dr. Martens’ would only come about with Griggs’ acquisition, however. Their 1960 model came alongside an anglicised name (Maertens’ monicker being chosen over Funck’s in part because of the apparent potential for obscenity suggested by the latter), as well as a more bulbous upper, the aforementioned stitching, and the distinctive sole pattern. Also included was the branded heel loop, which still bears the slogan “With Bouncing Soles” in a font based on Bill Grigg’s own handwriting.

DMs have been aesthetic cornerstones of countless movements in popular culture. If their shift from functional workwear to full-on cultural phenomenon was down to one person, that would be Pete Townshend. The Who’s guitarist chose a pair of 1460s no doubt as much for their working-class roots and outside appeal as their comfort and toughness, all of which made them ideal for his mile-a-minute on-stage acrobatics. Add a boiler suit and some scissor kicks and the rest is rock and roll history. 

Chelsea Bridge Rockers
Image credit: Triton Rocker / CC BY 3.0
Man wearing punk clothing holding a sign and umbrella
Image credit: Jorge Gonzalez / CC BY-SA 2.0
Punk performers wearing Dr. Martens
Image credit: Luke Mouradian / Public domain

Docs duly came to be adopted by mods, punks, and goths, as well as fans of ska, glam, grunge and more. Even further at the cultural fringes were the football hooligans and skinheads. The latter preferred boots in brown (rather than the standard black or oxblood), often worn oversized. ‘Skins’ would rub black polish into the creases to give their boots an aged look and use long laces tied around their legs. This was paired with buzzed haircuts, white shirts, and Levis cut deliberately short to show the full effect of their boots.

London skinheads wearing Dr. Martens
Image credit: Herradordezapatos / CC BY-SA 4.0

But any former association with the more unseemly sections of skinhead culture has not affected the brand’s appeal. In fact, Dr. Martens seem to defy contradiction: they are German designed shoes that would become quintessentially British; originally popular with gardening nans only to become a punk staple; at once worn by skinheads and hooligans and the police officers who detained them. It’s no surprise then that today much of the brand’s marketing boasts about the diversity of its following.

Many notables apart from Pete Townshend have shown a fondness for the brand’s innumerable shoe offerings. Various other rockers including The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Viv Albertine of the Slits, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam have been fans. On the big screen, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon sported matching pairs in the 1992 slacker classic, Singles, and Elton John’s giant, stilt-like pair in Tommy have become iconic. Among a younger generation of celebs, they’re regularly sported by musicians like Pharrell, Rihanna, Jared Leto, and Tyler, the Creator, as well as workwear enthusiasts including Ryan Gosling, Justin Theroux, Jason Schwartzman, and Brooklyn Beckham.

DMs’ decades-long embrace by youth culture around the globe has carried them to a debut market valuation of just over $5 billion. This in itself feels remarkable somehow. Can you think of another shoe that isn’t a sneaker — let alone a fairly traditionally-styled leather boot — as wildly popular among young people? 

All of which makes a pair of Docs a very accessible choice. They have proven to be a staple that is relatively impervious to changing fashions. Their ubiquity, legacy, and relative affordability make them appeal even to those who don’t already have the subcultural predisposition to buy them (an aspiring punk or experimenting goth, say). They promise everyday quality with the added appeal of some cultural cache and rebel kudos. And with endless groups and identities having coalesced alongside them, Dr. Martens offer the promise of being made into something entirely your own.

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