The Current

As Doc Martens float on London Stock Exchange, will counterculture image be given the boot?

Dr. Martens boots had humble beginnings but have found a lasting appeal. But as the company behind makes an IPO and they become more fashionable, one expert wonders if the brand will "lose its currency as the footwear of rebellion."

Shoe expert wonders if brand will 'lose its currency as the footwear of rebellion'

Dr. Martens Plc made its initial public offering on Jan. 29, with stock surging to close at 450 pence after pricing its IPO at 370 pence. (Copyright © 2021 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada. All rights reserved.)

Doc Martens boots have long been a symbol of counterculture, but some experts are wondering if that reputation can survive increasing ties to high fashion, and the company's recent debut on the London Stock Exchange.

"Doc Martens, I think, is going through this interesting moment where which way will it go, and will it lose its currency as the footwear of rebellion if it treads down this road too far?" said Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

In its initial public offering on Jan. 29, Dr. Martens Plc's stock surged to close at 450 pence after pricing its IPO at 370 pence, the top end of an initial range. It continued to rise in the days that followed.

The boots have roots in postwar Germany, where an air-cushioned sole was developed to replace the hard-leather version common in other shoes at the time. That new design was acquired in the 1960s by a British boot-making company, and applied to a bulbous boot with multiple lace-holes and eyelets, and a distinctive yellow stitch.

Semmelhack said that over the decades the brand became linked to youth cultures and "large historical moments," such as the punk and grunge eras, or goth communities.

"Each of those moments, I think, connects to ideas of rebellion, although they did start out as just a form of work shoes," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Andrew Groves, professor of fashion design at Westminster University in the U.K., remembers his first pair as "a rite of passage," bought "in the early 1980s and the time of ska, and the band Madness."

"That was actually a pair of 20-hole boots … they probably used to take about 15 minutes to put on," he said.

Nowadays he sees them worn by a wide range of people, from those who want a fashion statement, to those who think the boots show they don't care about what they wear at all.

"It's one of those objects that you can transform by the wearer and their attitude, and those are very rare," he told Galloway.

He thinks their wide appeal "is one of the reasons they're being able to float themselves on the stock market because they have a meaning to everyone."

"Everyone feels they have a personal investment, even if it's not a financial investment into the brand."

The company also makes shoes, and began production in Britain in the 1960s. (Copyright © 2021 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada. All rights reserved.)

From mods to neo-nazis to the runway

Semmelhack said one of the early adopters of the boots were the Mods, a subculture recognizable for its clean, suit-and-scooter aesthetic.

As the 1960s progressed, she said other subcultures arose from the Mod movement: "Some of them are very welcoming and inclusive, and some are increasingly nationalistic."

"The boot itself becomes sort of linked to ideas of the British working class, skinheads begin to use them as a uniform," she said.

"For the very fringe elements of that group, they become the sort of neo-Nazi skinheads."

That association lasted decades, leading to ideas around what was signified by the colour of your laces.

In the 1990s, the company began to brand itself as a more general statement about youthful rebellion, she said, and "begin to distance themselves from these, you know, more complicated political statements."

"Marc Jacobs, of course, famously put them on the runway in the '90s, sort of elevating them to the high fashion platform," she said.

While Semmelhack said the history of the boots is not erased, she wonders "what happens when Doc Martens becomes so connected to ideas of high fashion that that currency is lost?"

Groves thinks that no matter what efforts a corporate brand might make, the idea of Doc Martens belongs to the people who have loved to wear them for decades.

"It's up to the people, I think, ultimately to decide whether they still have that meaning or not," he said.

"No matter what happens, I can't see them going out of fashion or anti-fashion. I think they're going to remain with us, you know, for another 60 years."

The Current asked listeners to share memories of their own Dr. Martens, here are some of the responses

One listener was inspired to dust off her old docs for the first time in a while...

... while others remembered the boots they loved way back when.

Some listeners recalled getting their first pair — and lessons learned!

Others focused on the boots not just as footwear, but as works of art.

Listen to more listener stories below

Listeners share memories of their Doc Martens, and what the boots meant to them. 1:28

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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