I have just bought a new pair of shoes. They are, in fact, the same shoes that I wore to school when I was 13. I have just purchased my first ever sensible adult shoe, and it is the same as the last ever sensible shoe I actually wore. This was circa 1995, so cyclical fashion seems to have sped up.
I remember wanting my first pair of Dr Martens boots. It was the first time I wanted something specific clothes related, so this was my first trend, I suppose. Even if ‘trend’ for me back then meant emulating Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in Singles, Clarissa Darling or Kurt Cobain. You had to find your subculture and join up. Grunge had my heart from seeing the first look of Marc Jacobs notorious 1992 catwalk show, and from hearing the opening bars of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. I pored over the ‘Grunge & Glory’ editorial by Steven Meisel, shot and published back in December 1992, and it was everything I wanted to wear. Incorporating Nirvana t-shirts, plaid shirts (which were easy to come by in the charity shop my Grandma did Saturdays in), knitwear, layers upon layers and – of course – Dr Martens boots. This was where it all began.
It was the first time I remember insisting to my long suffering Daddy that they HAD to be Dr Martens, they HAD to have the yellow stitching, they HAD to have the label coming out of the back celebrating their Bouncing Soles, they HAD to be 8-hole classic black and they HAD to be mine. We went to Finmere Market to procure them; a favourite memory, all of those black and yellow boxes stacked up containing those precious pieces of cool, their packaging perfectly complimenting the pivotal Nirvana smiley t-shirt (procured on the same day, the first day of my so-called grunge life). I swear to God, the things barely left my feet. I adored them. They were my first piece of fashion – or anti-fashion – I had hoped at the time. It is said that early adopter, Pete Townsend of The Who used to go to bed with two things on tour: ‘a cognac bottle and a Dr Martens boot’.
Back in 2010, Dr Martens celebrated its 50th birthday. They were created via a partnership of two German innovators along with the Griggs family of Northampton. The German duo invented the air cushioned sole after an ankle injury on a skiing trip and placed an ad for a collaborator in Shoe & Leather News Magazine, to which the British cobblers replied. Practical footwear worn by working men was born. As the rise of British subcultures took over – particularly in the North – the Dr Martens mega journey began. First adopted by the early skinheads, a non violent tribe and proud of their working class roots, the Dr Martens boot was a perfect fit. Woody in Shane Meadows’ This Is England represents those gentle skinheads, dressed immaculately with buttoned-up shorts, braces, his cherry reds polished and neat. But as racism crept in to the skinhead movement, there was a darker side to the Dr Martens story. I read an article in The Observer by Sarfraz Manzoor back in 2010 who said that as an Asian boy growing up at that time in he was both in awe and terrified of the boots, as to christen them, the skinheads had taken to kicking someone. Blood on your pair was the ultimate coup.
The boots have since been adopted by many groups; punks, two tone, goth, grunge and continue to thrive today. And yes, they’re still worn as practical workwear by so many different professions. As a grunge teen, I wore them sloppily. Not done up properly, flapping open, scuffed, feet slipping every time I shuffled a step, getting caught in diaphanous maxi skirts, or creating the scruffiest unkempt look with layers of flippy dresses, holey cardigans and ripped tights. I remember when I woke up one Sunday morning and my weeks of careful scuffing had been polished away by my Mama, the dull leather was to much for her to bear, oh how she loved to polish shoes. I must admit it wasn’t until Dawn O’Porter pointed out in her book Paper Aeroplanes (an EXCELLENT book for any Nineties Teen) when a character found them at the back of the cupboard, and everybody was wearing those 90’s block platform lace ups, that I recall my love affair had ever ended. My first and best pair of DM’s still live on in my mothers garden; she planted flowers in them after they returned from a Glastonbury in an unacceptable state to come back into the house.
I loved that every pair was a blank canvas, every owner free to draw, add bottle tops, change laces, scratch in the initials of your latest crush, paint onto and personalise. The creatives’ boots were always the most interesting; your own wearable art, wearable expression and wearable you.
I worried that rose-tinted memories of my grunge days would be ruined if I went back. To break in another pair would be too much. I remember the pain the first time round, but what I have struggled with most for my entire adult life is my footwear. I don’t wear heels often so that is not the problem. I have a penchant for velvet or satin shoes which in our British climate is the problem, along with my super penchant for ballerina slippers. I walk around town for hours upon hours, and stand on set all day, everyday in these flat, butter soft, pretty, unsupportive, impractical shoes and it is ruining me. My posture is terrible, my body aches and my poor feet have become lumpy hooves.
It has taken nearly 20 years for me to realise that my first fashion choice was actually my most practical and comfortable fashion choice. And it is still a fashion choice. Dr Martens are as much of a fashion trend choice as they are an anti-fashion trend choice as they are a work shoe. Whilst I accept that revisiting the cream ripped lace maxi skirt may be a mistake, those boots will not be. I am easing myself in with a pair of Oxblood 1461’s which I think I may even be I love with. Classic, sturdy, waterproof, comfortable, supportive and cool ~ what the hell have I been doing all of these years?
However, the 8-hole black classic is already creeping back into my mind. I do worry that I am too old for them to be drawn on, worn undone and flapping, I am not sure my poor Boyfriend could deal with me looking like a petulant teen as well as acting like one, but does doing them up properly make me part of a different group? I picked Grunge, or it picked me, and now I dip into and mix in other looks and influences, but I believe you always go back. That first choice you made was for a reason, it’s what you really believed, what you felt like and what you grew up absorbing yourself with. It’s where your teen heart is. So congratulations to Dr Martens for ensuring that quite so many rebellious teens have unknowingly enjoyed a solid, sensible, comfortable shoe to wistfully reminisce over in later life. And now congratulations!