What’s up Doc (Martens)?

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Words || Rima Martens

The realisation that every product has a history, a development process, a maker and people whose lives are spent bent on its success is a thought that likely blew your brain one late night sitting in a room surrounded by too much junk. Or maybe not. Either way, one such product is the inter-generationally beloved yellow-stitched boot, Doc Martens. They have a lineage just as spicy as our Commonwealth royals. English in presentation, German in the making.

Doc Martens were born, as all of us are, out of pain. Klaus Märtens, a doctor in the German army during World War II, injured his foot during a holiday in the Bavarian Alps. From that point on, no available shoe was good enough for him. Klaus took the ordinary army boot and fashioned old tyres into an air padded sole to ease the pain of his skiing misadventure. He was on to something.

A university friend, Herbert Funk, soon partnered him in the cobblery to make more and it was not long until the shoes were being flown overseas. Its worth noting that the first most popular market was German housewives over the age of forty.  

Now having crossed the pond, British shoe maker R. Griggs Group bought patent rights almost immediately. The eight-holed shoe was released with minor changes, and Doc Martens were about to begin life as an English icon.

It is telling of its future that the shoe was released in 1960, the beginning of one of the most significant decades of the modern era. The shoe was swept up into the whirling spin of changes happening in society. The working class initially donned the shoe; post men and factory workers were among the first to pull the laces tight. Martin Roach, author of Doctor Martens: The Story Of An Icon, discusses how this working class image was essential to the subcultural punk groups of British youth culture, such as the Skinheads. Ironically it was worn by both white supremacists and anti-racist social justice warriors. It was worn by the police, and even by British Labor politician Tony Benn.

The shoe became something of a symbol for the rebellious, first notably worn by Pete Townshend from The Who. Like dominos, Doc Martens were then donned by the Sex Pistols, The Slits, The Clash and Madonna, no less. Clearly, the relationship between music and Doc Martens is that of a deep passionate love affair, eclipsed at the moment that Elton John wore them on stilts in the opera Tommy.

The thriving punk and music culture of Britain changed music and the way that we experience it today. The band scene began and festivals blossomed. The domination of the shoe that was functional for such head-banging and mud dancing, while also a part of the fashion, would only grow throughout the 80s and 90s.

In the 2000s the shoe’s sales began to decline, but their potential and significance was quickly caught by fashion designers who grabbed at the shoes spirit in the alternative youth culture. Quite far from their humble beginnings on the injured Klaus Märtens, the boots ended up on the catwalk.

Today we are three years off Doc Martens60th birthday and there is almost no one who hasnt partnered or worn these staple boots. From collaborations with Cartoon Network to create Jake and Finn-themed boots, to being shaped into high heeled and sandal versions, Doc Martens also continue to be at the forefront of many a revolution. There are collections of the shoe that are made today for vegans, and collections that support LGBT Pride (in rainbow, of course). History forecasts that Doc Martens can survive and adapt to any trend. So while we all wear the timeless icon, don’t take off the history; it is there to be remembered.