Originally designed for workers, the Dr. Martens signature boot – instantly recognizable by its functional shape, clunky sole and distinctive yellow stitching – has been a perennial favorite for counter culture musicians and style tribes, associated with everything from punk and ska to grunge and metal.
These affiliations are traced in Dr. Martens: A History of Rebellious Self-Expression. The new book, timed with the company’s 55th anniversary, charts the shoe’s move from work boot to subcultural statement through 220 photos and interviews with high-profile fans from JJ Burnel to Joe Strummer.
While the boot’s fan base has only grown and diversified over the years (everyone from OG punks to pop princesses like Ellie Goulding wear them these days), the association with rebels and independent thinkers remains.
The history of subculture is a chronicle of being different. Back in the 1950s, when the first generation of teenagers fired up a youth revolution, their goal was to look and behave differently to their parents. Previously, young people had been stylistic carbon copies of their elders. But with the advent of first-generation rock ‘n’ roll and also Teddy Boys, a generational schism cracked open that would never again be rendered shut.
On the surface, the Griggs family of Northampton in the English Midlands was seemingly a part of this reviled establishment. Making boots since 1901 in the heartland of British shoe-making, the family was successful, established, respected. Scratch the surface a little, however, and it’s clear that the Griggs clan actually possessed certain characteristics that would in the future become essential identifiers of any self-respecting youth phenomenon: they were free thinkers and they were different.
Why different? Because the Griggs family didn’t accept what had gone before as a rigid template for the future. The past was largely a reference book of ‘old’ ideas to rebel against. It was this spirit of innovation that coursed through Bill Griggs’ veins as he sat in his Cobbs Lane office one day in the late 1950s flicking through an issue of Shoe and Leather News magazine, only for his eyes to fall upon an advert by a German duo looking for overseas partners for their revolutionary new air-cushioned sole.
Munich-based Dr Maertens and his university friend Dr Funck were also different. Inventors, mavericks, free-thinkers, ditto. In response to a foot injury on a ski-ing trip, they’d invented an air-cushioned sole and were looking for like-minded innovators. Griggs contacted Dr Maertens, a name was anglicized, a plan hatched and a legend born on April 1st, 1960.
When the first pair of Dr. Martens boots rolled off the production line on that day, it was on to a British high street where youth tribes were still a rarity. Not for long: the next four decades saw the time-bomb of subculture explode across the globe as a series of tribes sprang up from their respective undergrounds, each new incarnation heralding a burning desire to be different to what had gone before.
In those early years, however, there are two distinctive and pivotal moments when Dr. Martens and youth culture became melded together, inseparably as it turned out. First up was the early skinhead, a multi-cultural, ska-loving homage to the British working classes, mimicking the dress sense of the working man with an obsessive attention to detail – style was everything. Up until then, the Dr. Martens boot had been sold mostly as reliable working men’s footwear; therefore it made the perfect choice for the skinhead. And so Dr. Martens was wrenched from the factory floor into youth culture and, for the brand, nothing would ever be the same again.
A few short and volatile years later, Pete Townshend deliberately donned a pair of black 1460s on stage with his incendiary band The Who, as an unashamed indicator of his affiliation with working class pride. When Townshend windmilled and jumped around in his DM’s, the young world watched. This was in an era of flower power and dandyish psychedelia; Townshend looked … different. Now Dr. Martens had a torch-bearer who was at the very heart of youth culture.
Townshend has said that he used to go to bed on tour with two things: ‘A cognac bottle and a Dr. Martens boot.’ This almost peculiar personal affection for the boot is not exclusive to The Who’s guitarist. It is in fact at the very core of the brand’s enduring popularity and it also ensured that over the coming decades, when each subsequent youth subculture feverishly burned the trappings of the previous ‘fashion’ or ‘movement’, they frequently saved their cherished Dr. Martens from the flames, clutching them to their collective chest. So when punks came along, angry at a lack of opportunity and defiantly individualistic, they pulled DM’s on for the battle; when Two Tone fans spent hours choosing just the right suit, a crisp and clean pair of three-hole 1461 shoes was an essential accompaniment; and when Britpop kids might have kicked against grunge’s apparent apathy, a pair of cherry red 8-holers was often the perfect companion.
Once the genie had been let out of the bottle back in the 1960s, the vapours of Dr. Martens’ rebellious spirit could not be contained and the boot seeped into every corner and crevice of youth culture. Consequently, the subcultures who have championed Dr. Martens reads like a Who’s Who’ of youth culture: skins, punks, two tone, Oi!, hardcore, psychobilly, goth, industrial, grebo, grunge, Britpop, emo … the list goes on.
Of course, Dr. Martens has not been immune to the brash self-expression of youth: so the boots are often worn with the quarters flapping open, deliberately unpolished and scuffed; or perhaps laced rigidly and precisely, with a military sheen on the toe. Maybe left plain or else customised individually … and so on. Each to their own. Each pair different. This is where that moment of magic back in late 1950s Northampton truly comes into its own – what the Griggs family created was a watershed silhouette, an off-the-shelf design classic that has quite literally allowed generation after generation to paint its own personality on to those humble uppers, sometimes literally.
With the explosion of technology in the 1990s and into the new Millennium, youth culture changed exponentially. It’s fair to say that the so-called ‘tribes’ are not so visible anymore, often populating the ether of the internet rather than the streets of the underground. Youth culture in the 21st century is a very much more complex entity, more fluid and certainly more intermingled. Some people claim ‘there are no haircuts anymore’ and in a sense that is true. But there is certainly no lack of invention, rebellion and individuality, perhaps now more than ever.
This post-modern generation is far more media-savvie than their predecessors too. They dip into a stylistic ‘Pick ‘n’ Mix’ of fashion and subcultural history to create a look, sound and lifestyle that appeals. Nothing is off limits. Inevitably, some classic looks become misappropriated and demeaned, that’s unavoidable and unpreventable. Increasingly, the brands that survive this potentially fatal mass dissemination are those that are genuine. Marketing cheque books can buy screen time or magazine space, but not authenticity. When I first met the current Dr. Martens chairman several years ago, he turned up in a scooter boy’s green parka, driving a Mini with a Union Jack on the roof and wing mirrors. Different, I thought.
The inventors of the Dr. Martens air-cushioned sole; the Griggs family; every youth subculture that has ever existed – they all have one common denominator, a primal urge to be different. Modern youth culture is now unrecognisable from the 1950s – in some ways from the 1990s even – and yet the next chapters of the history books will be written by exactly the same kind of personalities who penned the memoirs of the first fifty years of subculture. Namely people who want to be individuals, who want to be expressive, rebellious, free-thinking … different. That word again.
And when they learn from the footsteps of their predecessors and step into a future of their own making, they might just do it in a pair of Dr. Martens …