As Doc Martens float on London Stock Exchange, will counterculture image be given the boot?
Shoe expert wonders if brand will 'lose its currency as the footwear of rebellion'
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.
I bought my first pair in ‘95. Had to save alll of my babysitting money to make it happen. They were brown leather shoes because I couldn’t afford the boots version. I had a friend borrow them and never return them. Loved them dearly and felt badass with them on!—@KatuniaOB
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."
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.
TBH <a href="https://twitter.com/mattgallowaycbc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@mattgallowaycbc</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/TheCurrentCBC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheCurrentCBC</a> I never owned Doc Martens because I always associated them with the skinhead movement. I’m 47 and actually more likely to buy a pair today!—@FHG1644
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...
I dusted off my purple Doc Martens this morning. At 60, they still make me feel badass and remind me of my youth living on Baker Street, London UK ‘83 <a href="https://t.co/XxGY88zCK6">pic.twitter.com/XxGY88zCK6</a>—@ThatLaurieHall
... while others remembered the boots they loved way back when.
Bought up my first pair of docs in '91. Drove from Lindsay to Queen W in TO and found a pair of brogue docs from <a href="https://twitter.com/groovyshoes?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@groovyshoes</a>. Sadly no pics of me in them, but my mom tried them on for the laugh. <br>Only thing I don't miss is breaking them. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/toomanyblisters?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#toomanyblisters</a> <a href="https://t.co/GVOiK5CSYR">pic.twitter.com/GVOiK5CSYR</a>—@ThePattieCakes
Some listeners recalled getting their first pair — and lessons learned!
First pair were black 8-hole Greasys bought in the early nineties in Regina. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SkaStyle?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SkaStyle</a> They taught me an important lesson, learned flat on my back in an icy parking lot, sore head and butt: practicality must trump style. Those soles are super slippery below -20! No Docs in winter—@rcp_ca
Like so many of my high school colleagues I lusted for a pair of docs in the late 80’s. I finally saved the money and bought a pair of 4-holes from an army surplus store on Yonge street. One of those shoes was chewed up by a puppy at my friend’s house not less than 2 weeks later.—@tcpiy
Others focused on the boots not just as footwear, but as works of art.
<a href="https://twitter.com/TheCurrentCBC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheCurrentCBC</a> is talking about Doc Martens. These are my faves, though I bought them as art, not for the street. <a href="https://t.co/wW5EfqJnrz">pic.twitter.com/wW5EfqJnrz</a>—@helen_vandongen
These are the painted-in-progress - it’s a Joan of Arc theme, with Joan “before and after”. <a href="https://t.co/f3ibQgaPKa">pic.twitter.com/f3ibQgaPKa</a>—@megsbeach
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Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.