An Abridged History of Dr. Martens
An Abridged History of Dr. Martens
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date March 7, 2018
As with many British brands, Dr. Martens is inextricably linked to class. Whereas many UK companies got their start and grew their reputation serving the British elite, Dr. Martens have always been a symbol of the working class. Even when they have been worn by rock stars and featured on runways, Dr. Martens have been used to evoke the same thing. Whether you see them as symbols of dressed-up style subcultures like “grunge” or “punk,” or think they're purely for down-and-dirty workwear, the enduring appeal of Dr. Martens always centers around the simple fact that they are a boot of the people, for the people.
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The history of Dr. Martens began in 1901 in the Northamptonshire, England. Almost immediately, the brand established itself at the center of the British work boots world. But, at that time, the company was known as Griggs; the iconic Dr. Marten shoe wouldn’t come along for another 50 years. Though they made boots, they hadn’t yet hit on the look that would dominate half a century of pop culture.
As with so many brands, the world wars changed the course of history for Griggs. In 1945, 25 year-old soldier Dr. Klaus Maertens was convalescing in post-war Munich. While nursing a broken foot back to health, Maertens created an air-cushioned sole for his boots, as opposed to the traditional hard leather. Armed with a prototype and assisted by his partner Dr. Herbert Funk, Maertens found fast success. Over a decade of selling mostly to older women and placing ads in footwear magazines, word of his unique design spread. Eventually, word got back to England, where the Griggs family took note of an advertisement for a shoe an air-cushioned sole.
Griggs acquired the license in the late ‘50s, and a collaboration between Griggs and Maerten resulted in the Dr. Martens 1460. This boot has been the flagship of the brand ever since. The design utilized Maerten’s original eight eyelet design, but added a few iconic key flourishes, including yellow stitching, the branded heel loop, and the two-tone grooved sole edge. The 1460 was solely manufactured in the UK until 2003, though Dr. Martens still makes 1 percent of its 1460s in the UK today. These boots are made at its Cobbs Lane factory, which are marked by its high-end MIE “Made in England” label. The iconic design has only been updated once since its inception, in 2016.
Dr. Martens was born in an era rife with social change, and the boots quickly became a countercultural symbol. Its popularity as a working class boot (then-selling at £2 apiece to British laborers) made them a favorite of skinheads of the era. The skinhead look began as a stripped down working class response to the more florid look of the Mods. Dr. Martens capped off their street uniform, which consisted of buzzed hair, a white t-shirt and Levi’s. The important thing to note is that 1960s skinhead culture wasn’t heavily focused on race, but rather financial station and social standing; in fact, initially, skinheads were a multicultural group, and Dr. Martens’ place in pop culture was purely regarding class.
As the skinhead subculture adopted the look, various counterculture figures began to take notice. Pete Townshend of The Who was the first rock star to champion the boots on the public stage. When asked about what made him fall in love with Dr. Martens, Townshend said,“I was sick of dressing up as a Christmas tree in flowing robes that got in the way of my guitar playing, so I thought I’d move on to utility wear.” Though Townshend was also reacting against Mod style, the boots soon became popular across subcultures. Even Mods started wearing them. In 1975, Townshend had Elton John wear an iconic pair of oversized Dr. Martens in The Who’s rock opera Tommy, and the boots had a big moment on the international stage.
In the ’70s, Dr. Martens would truly come to dominate British culture. Ironically, in the decade when the shoes were standard issue for police in the UK, they also became associated with everything counterculture. As the mods and skinheads splintered into various genres of the era like Glam, Punk, Two-Tone Ska—and even Goth—there was one distinct thing that all of these various groups shared: Dr. Martens.
Thought many bands across various genres championed Dr. Martens, it was punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash who would become best known for embracing the boots as an essential part of their aesthetic. Devotees of the genre through the decades have continued to wear Dr. Martens as an essential part of the punk look. Along with bondage pants, leather jackets and safety pins, these boots were a part of the punk rock uniform.
Once Dr. Martens become inextricably connected to punk, and later hardcore, the brand’s international popularity soared. To this day, where these genres exist the world over, you’ll find Dr. Martens on-foot. Visiting musicians from the United States, especially those in punk and hardcore bands, took Dr. Martens home after playing shows across the pond. Would-be punk rockers couldn’t find enough of the boots in thrift stores and pairs purchased by travelling friends, and by 1984 Dr. Martens were being sold in US stores.
This led to Doc Martens taking hold in the Seattle grunge scene of the early ‘90s. Eddie Vedder wore them on stage, and Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon wore matching boots in 1992’s indie hit Singles. When Marc Jacobs brought grunge to the runway with his infamous Perry Ellis Spring/Sumer 1993 show, he took Dr. Martens with him.
When discussing the cultural significance of the boots, while it’s significantly rooted in the positive expansion and cultural blend of music and style, it is also important to dig a little deeper into the brand’s longstanding association with skinheads. While the 1960s skinheads were a multicultural set, by the 1980s, the skinheads and their boots (which, based on a blend of socio-economic factors, had included Dr Martens) had neo-nazi associations. The economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s occasioned by Margaret Thatcher’s policies led to rise of white nationalist groups in the UK who targeted working class skinheads for recruitment. The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Dr. Martens in its racist skinhead glossary to this day, noting that neo-nazis often wear the laces “straight” with either white or red laces. Tiffani Travis and Perry Harder’s book Skinheads: A Guide to An American Subculture offers further detail about how Dr. Martens function in skinhead culture, down to the group’s preferred designs and colors (oxblood has always been a favorite).
With the decline of punk, hardcore, and really, rock music as a whole, Dr. Martens sales declined sharply in the 2000s. Fortunately for the brand, as with many legacy brands in the US and UK, designers wanted to collaborate with Dr. Martens to celebrate and revitalize the boots. A 2009 partnership with Raf Simons was an exercise in extremes, offering shiny, gilded pieces alongside simple working class inspired designs. Dr. Martens worked with Stussy that same year on suede designs that fit in well with the boots of the moment. A 2012 collaboration with Pendleton produced the ultimate in “legacy-on-legacy” action. These are just a handful of the collaborations Dr. Martens has put out; if you take a look at its collaboration archive, you’ll find a wide variety of ventures from the last decade—including (but not limited to) work with the likes of Supreme (who has collaborated with the brand on several occasions), Bape, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Off-White, Engineered Garments and Vetements.
Under Dr. Martens new owner, clothing behemoth Permira, Dr. Martens has continued its commitment to its legacy identity. Opening brick and mortar stores, further investing in the “Made In England” heritage subbrand, persistent nods to its history and continued collaborations are all ways that the company taps into Dr. Martens iconic reputation.
Dr. Martens remain popular today, though its position in the culture is quite different than it was even 25 years ago. Though the likes of Rihanna and Pharrell (at an NYU graduation ceremony no less)—not to mention countless other fashion folk—have been spotted in the boots and the company maintains brisk sales numbers, the boots are now a fashion statement rather than a style identity. They are often used to punctuate a street look or hearken back to a retro fit, but they are no longer a ubiquitous youth culture staple. As punk drifts into the history books and hip-hop dominates youth culture, what role Dr. Martens has left to play in the culture is unknown. Regardless of what musical genre or subculture is pioneering the latest trend, one thing is certain however: Dr. Martens are sure to be on the forefront (and, technically forefoot). Working class or upper crust, there’s no denying the grit, influence and impact of a sturdy pair of Dr Martens.