Fashion is usually beautiful but painful. High-heel shoes that result in tendon damage, tight clothes that lead to yeast infections and more. That’s exactly what makes Doc Martens so interesting; not only is it the rare fashion brand that lasts for decades, but Doc Martens are more about comfort than style. Maybe that’s the secret to its success.
Docs were originally designed by an actual Doc, a German Army doctor named Klaus Märtens, who towards the end of World War II hurt his ankle in a skiing accident. (What is it about Nazis launching shoe companies? Both Adidas and Puma were also created by Germans during World War II.) Martens wanted cushioned leather boots that could absorb the pressure from walking and standing. In 1952, he began making his namesake footwear, with soles made from surplus Luftwaffe rubber. Not long after, an English family bought the rights to produce the boots in the UK, dropping the umlaut in the Märtens name to make it sound less German.
The boots were introduced to England in 1960, where they quickly became popular with mailmen and factory workers who needed something durable that they could also stand around in all day. Popularity doesn’t equal hipness, though, and Docs weren’t even remotely trendy until Pete Townshend from the classic rock band The Who started wearing a pair of used eight-eyelet 1460 Docs sometime around 1966. “I was sick of dressing up as a Christmas tree in flowing robes that got in the way of my guitar playing,” Townshend said. “So I thought I’d move onto utility wear.”
A decade later, Elton John would appear in the film version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, wearing a pair of Docs that were four and a half feet tall.
The shoes first came to the United States in 1984. By that point, they were a trademark of racist skinheads in Britain, who wore Docs as they patrolled the streets. “I was 12 when I bought my first eight-hole DMs,” says photographer Gavin Watson, who documented skinhead culture in the early ’80s. “And the rule was that you had to christen them by kicking someone with them. It didn’t matter who, and if you got some blood on them that was even better.” Ironically, the other major consumers of the boots were cops, who would use black boot polish to hide the brand’s iconic yellow stitching.
There are plenty of reasons why several generations of counterculture movements would latch on to Doc Martens. They’re cheap, comfortable and easily found in thrift stores — leading to their adoption, at various times, by punks, skinheads, goths, and grunge kids. But change even comes to Doc Martens: Sales have declined in the new millennium, and the brand’s “Made In England” trademark is now reserved for an exclusive, pricey version of the boots. The rest are made in Thailand and China.
Docs aren’t the only example of functional workwear becoming a fashion item. For one thing, that’s why marketing departments exist, but workwear also offers a feeling of realness and authenticity that designer labels can’t claim… though they may try. Take a look at a brand like Madewell, the J Crew label that bought its origin story from a Massachusetts company that made terribly unfashionable factory clothes. Or Shinola, the Detroit-themed bicycle and watch manufacturer that began a few years ago, well after the famous shoe-polish company of “You don’t know shit from…” fame went dormant.
These fake-workwear products look good and they tell a convincing story — but no youth subculture is ever going to adopt $500 watches or $128 skinny jeans like they took to their first pair of Doc Martens.
(featured image via Ronnie Gavelin)