Keynote Lecture 4

Teenage Kicks – Cultural Approaches to Dr. Martens

I was quite excited when I saw this title on the projector screen because I have always loved Dr. Martens boots even if  I don’t wear them so much these days. One of my earliest memories regarding shoes was when I was in primary  and my parents bought me a pair of bright yellow Dr. Martens. I remember that they caused quite a stir with the people that I knew, everyone commented on my new shoes and at that age and not being terribly fashion conscious, I didn’t realise what the fuss was about until quite a few years later but even then I did not understand the full impact that Dr. Martens had on our culture until I had listened to this lecture.

Although this particular lecture was on the ‘cultural CV’ of Dr. Martens boots, the lecture is really about how we can examine the cultural identity of all kinds of objects using the shoes as a case study in this instance.

Dr. Marten’s originated as work wear for people such as policemen and other public servants who needed footwear that would long wearing and comfortable. Because of their popularity amongst policemen and other public service workers they were considered very anti fashionable. Whilst this anti fashionable element may have meant fashionistas wouldn’t have touched them with a barge pole, this idea of the shoes being unfashionable was actually desirable to many sub cultures in Britain at the time. These were subcultures who wanted to be as far from the mainstream as they possibly could so they adopted things that mainstream people just didn’t want to be seen in.

Dr. Martens boots were adopted and adapted many types of subcultures over the years and each had their own distinct style of wearing the boot. This meant that if you wore your Dr. Martens a certain way, people knew what group you belonged to and from this could infer what kind of views and attitude you might have had.

Perhaps most notably was the way the skinheads wore their boots. They changed the laces and laced them very tightly to the top and then wrapped the lace round the top of the shoe and then tied it. This was a very distinctive way of wearing Dr. Martens. It was also one that connoted awful violence and racism and it created such a powerful image that the shoes were banned in schools. People were genuinely upset by the sight of them.

Of course this new connotation of Dr. Martens meant that the policemen had to modify the way they wore their boots because they certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with people like the skinheads and did not want to cause unrest or offence with their footwear. So rather than showing loud and proud that they wore Dr. Martens like the skinheads, mods and slightly later, punks and skinhead revival, they had to hide their boots. The policemen hid the fact that they were wearing Dr. Martens boots by colouring the distinctive yellow thread black so it didn’t stand out at all.

The shoes were banned at sporting events because of their steel toe caps (at this point they were still being made as work wear) and kids were sent home fro wearing them to school. They were an image of violence and threatening behaviour. But this all seems to have changed now. For example I have never had a time in my life when I thought of a pair of Dr. Martens as threatening and violent and they are popular with pretty much anyone these days. Even Miley Cirus has sported the shoes and they were featured in Elle magazine which is pretty mind blowing when you think of how unfashionable they were.

The shoes are also now available in any colour and pattern you could possibly imagine. I have seen patent pink, neon yellow, Japanese woodblock print designs featuring koi carp and even religious images like those old paintings of Mary and to think that they used to be black and ox blood red.

The Dr. Martens boot have undergone incredible cultural transformation over the last 50 years or so and I found this lecture really fascinating because I had never really looked into the history of  the shoe before. I was aware they were worn by skinheads but I didn’t realise all the customisation from people with all kinds of viewpoints and oppositions to mainstream views that wore them before me. However like I said at the start, this was about more than just the shoes, this was about how I can learn about the cultural identity and history of objects and materials in order to understand their rules. In order to create something effective, I need to understand what people understand by certain objects and materials and to this, I need to look into them just as this lecture looked into Dr. Martens. 

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