White Dr. Martens boots during London Fashion Week Men's January 2017
White Dr. Martens boots during London Fashion Week Men's January 2017
Image: Getty

I bought my first pair of Dr Martens in 1990, the same year Margaret Thatcher was toppled and I entered a new school for sixth form. They were oxblood red, eight-holed, and I wore them with a short black tube skirt, grungy old sweater and thick black tights. The boots had a foreshortening effect on the leg. "I wonder if you girls would all be so worried about your figures if you didn't wear such big heavy boots", remarked a male teacher dedicated to our pastoral care. I promptly bought a black workwear version with 10 eyelets and steel toecaps to forearm against similar advice in future. In a cold and unfamiliar environment, the boots delivered an attitude and confidence I couldn't quite express any other way.

It's 70 years since Klaus Maertens, a German doctor, and Herbert Funck, a plastics engineer, first launched their air-cushioned footwear technology on the commercial market. It's doubtful they ever imagined the influence their prototype would have. In 1947, their ambition was simply to create a pair of comfortable shoes. "The whole of Europe had just spent five years in army boots and everyone knew how uncomfortable they were," Maertens said decades later. "The shoe was the right answer at the right time." But the best, most enduring, most authentic items in fashion were never intended to be fashionable. Like Levi's jeans, or the Carhartt jacket, Maertens' shoes were first developed as workwear. Even the fabled 1460 boot, named after the date of its birth, 1st of April 1960, was never destined for much. The first boot to be produced under the anglicised name of Dr Martens by R Griggs (the Northamptonshire-based company which bought the UK licence to manufacture the shoes with the bouncing soles in 1960), they were initially sold to postmen, builders and medics for £2 a pair. Oil-, acid- and petrol-resistant, the soft-sole quality was especially popular with policemen wanting to creep up on criminals.

There's a precious irony in the fact that these establishment figures and their most visible young critics ended up sharing the same taste in shoes: Dr Martens quickly assumed a status among social tribes entirely opposed to the agencies of state. First picked up by the skinheads, whose adoption of the boots ensured the company a sixfold increase in sales, Dr Martens have managed to inveigle almost every major subculture since. The punks wore Dr Martens during the upheaval that coincided with UK's "winter of discontent" and the ascent of Thatcher. Northern Soul and Ska boys (and girls) adopted them as an expression of 1970s multiculturalism. In the mid-1980s, Morrissey chose a cherry-red boot to accompany his anti-establishment albums Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead. Feminists preferred them to stamp out sexism.

In the US, the brand gained international traction when it became the regulation footwear of the grunge, hardcore and punk bands that emerged in the twilight of the first Bush administration. Meanwhile, the Britpop pack wore them to see in the New Labour landslide of 1997.

The popularity peaks of Dr Martens have typically been accompanied by periods of political and social change. So what to make of their renaissance in 2017? According to a spokesman for the brand, global sales have risen by nearly 40 per cent in the past three years - from £209m in 2014 to £292m in 2017, with 50 per cent of sales being Originals, the collection that includes the 1460 (£115), 1461 (£100) and 2976 Chelsea Boot (£120).

Having survived near-bankruptcy in 2003, the brand is also enjoying a new fashionability: Dr Martens featured on three catwalks at the London menswear collections this month, at Berthold, Harry Xu and Rottingdean Bazaar. And a new SS17 collaboration with the zeitgeisty brand Vetements has delivered a 10-hole version of the boot that has eschewed laces and added white slogans on each heel. Styled on the catwalk with tulle evening dresses, they recall both the princesses of the Seattle grunge scene, and the eastern bloc street-punk attitude in which the brand is steeped. They sold out within 24 hours on matchesfashion.com.

Maybe the boot's new popularity is simply tickling our nostalgia for all things 1990s - see also the revival of Twin Peaks, Winona Ryder and Baywatch. But, I hope it's symptomatic of something deeper: the potential for political change. As their longest fashion collaborator, Yoji Yamamoto, who launched his zippered version of the 1460 in 2007, once observed: "It is appreciable for me when a tendency in fashion draws its essence from an actual social movement, or in a very practical context... Dr Martens are still shorthand for a rebellious spirit."

Sadly, I don't suit oxblood boots any more. I doubt I ever did. But I have bought Dr Martens for my daughter. She chose the Polley (£100), a buckled Mary Jane-style popularised by Japanese street-style stars, and she wears them with heart-stamped ankle socks. Rebellion with a side of cute. Now, let's get out there.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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