What makes an iconic design classic? Great design, obviously. Luck, possibly. Being in the right place at the right time, maybe. Quality, undoubtedly. A skiing accident? Well in this case, yes.
Doctor Martens, or if you’ve ever worn a pair, ‘Docs’ or ‘DMs’, have been produced in the UK since 1960 and are, without question, a great British design icon. Except the bit that actually sets them apart from any other piece of footwear, in this case, the sole, is a German invention.
When Munich-based inventor and general all-round boffin type Dr Klaus Maertens badly hurt his foot during a skiing accident, little could he have known that it was going to prove momentous in terms of both comfort and fashion. Along with his university friend Dr Herbert Funck (no, I kid you not), the pair developed an air cushioned sole that would serve Maertens better.
Due to restrictions place on Germany following the end of the Second World War, Maertens was unable to take the invention very far, but as Funck had been born in Luxembourg, he wasn’t under the same constraints. An advertisement placed in a British trade magazine, ‘Shoe and Leather News’, drew the attention of the Griggs family who had been making shoes and boots in Northamptonshire since the beginning of the 20th century.
In April 1960, the first pair of Docs rolled off the production line with a new, anglicised name (Doc Martens) and into a world where youth culture was about to explode in a way that post war Europe could never have expected. First up though, the shoes and boots were utilised by the police, soldiers and postmen, instantly giving them a ‘working class’ tag that was to become crucial to their future popularity.
Mods and Skinheads (and by skinheads we are talking about the original skinheads who emerged from the mod scene), with their affinity to working class culture very quickly picked up on Docs and, for the first time they became a fashion staple. Towards the end of the decade, Docs became an anti-hippie statement, as the Hippie movement represented a middle-class attitude that other youth cultures wanted to distance themselves from.
With Punk came the ultimate rebelliousness. Punks did away with every recognised fashion item with just one exception. They embraced the spirit of Doc Martens and wore them with pride. Unfortunately, so did the ‘white power’ skinheads, the very antithesis of the Jamaican skinheads. Sadly, there became a duality and confusion of image and, in the early 80s, DMs became equally associated with right wing thugs.
After a brief decline in sales, possibly due in part to the unwelcome right wing connotations, the popular boots and shoes found a renaissance in the late 80s/early 90s and especially amongst women. On a personal level, I remember a ‘year’ meeting we had when I was a college student. I don’t think the meeting could have been very interesting because I remember noticing that out of 24 female students in the room, 22 of them were wearing DMs. The other two had just come from a dance class and had dance shoes on, but they both wore Docs.
Nowadays, Doctor Martens are no longer made in the UK. The old classics such as the 1460 boot (my own personal choice) are still popular, however there is a much wider range of styles and colours, especially for the female market. My eldest daughter is extremely proud of the ‘hot pink’ patent leather pair she got for her 13th birthday!
And I am extremely proud of her for having chosen them. Docs have represented a statement in one way or another to British youth for over 50 years. Whether that statement is one of belonging or one of individuality, it is always about pride. And that is before anyone even mentions the fact they are incredibly comfortable and built to last. And last.