When my daughter started secondary school, there was only one pair of new school shoes that she would countenance. For the first time in her life – break my heart, child, why don’t you – we didn’t buy Start-rite or Clarks from John Lewis. We went to the Dr Martens store, where a chirpy sales assistant with purple hair and a pierced nose dispensed friendship advice as she sized up my daughter’s feet. The only thing standing between my daughter and shoe nirvana was the spectre of her friend P, whom she was worried would roast her for being a copycat. “Everyone has Doc Martens!” said the sales assistant. “They’re like jeans! You can’t really be accused of copying someone for having a pair. Trust me: you’ll get to school and the whole playground will be wearing them.”
And do you know what? They almost were. I’m not sure whether it’s 11-year-old girls who are behind the storied brand’s stellar profits this year (revenue climbed 25 per cent to £290.6 million in the year ended March 2017, with earnings rising 27 per cent to £37.5 million), but they certainly can’t be harming them. Perhaps they, along with an ongoing interest in 90s revivalism (DMs were a central tenet of the grunge look), are jointly responsible for Dr Martens swerving the dire sales figures currently being endured by many of their competitors. Either way, it makes me happy that a new generation is discovering the delights of these excellent shoes. Although “delights” isn’t quite the right word for such a sturdy item of footwear. Bejewelled heels are “delights”. Dr Martens are formidable.
Women have been through the mill this year. Faced at so many turns with the obvious assertion that we have far less of it than we should have, women need all the empowerment we can get
You never forget your first pair. Mine had concealed steel toe-caps whose bulbousness got me banned from the Kangaroo Klub in the late 80s (“ye canny come in wi’ these,” said the bouncer). Apparently, steel toe-capped DMs (as we all called them then) were the boot of choice among Edinburgh men hellbent on swedging. Happily, my sedate school didn’t view them with the same suspicion, and I wore them all through the sixth form. As well as being possessed of some peculiar alchemy which meant they never seemed to need polishing, my DMs made me feel strong and grounded. And while I never kicked so much as a kerb with those steel toe-caps, it still felt good to know they were there. There was something empowering about walking home alone in them on a dark winter night.
It’s of little surprise to know that when their current iteration was launched in the 1960s, the original target market was factory workers, manual labourers and anyone else whose job involved hard graft. What could be a finer shoe in which to shield yourself from tough working conditions? By the 1970s, they’d been appropriated by punks and skinheads: long before “street style” became a marketable commodity, tourists loved to take photos of punks congregating on the King’s Road, dressed almost universally in yellow-stitched DM boots. I never thought of them as symbols of rebellion – they were just cool shoes. But they were cool in the best kind of way, aka by not trying to be cool at all.
I don’t know what became of those steel toe-capped shoes, but in my daughter’s (non steel toe-capped) pair, their memory lives on. The other night, I noticed she was still wearing hers while watching Riverdale, long after school had finished. “They make me feel safe,” she explained. You can’t wish for much more from a shoe than that.
After analysing over 30,000 fashion-related articles written over the course of 2017, a recent survey by search engine Lyst found that the most important word of the year was “power”. No wonder. Women have been through the mill this year. Faced at so many turns with the obvious assertion that we have far less of it than we should have, women need all the empowerment we can get. Dr Martens won’t change the world. But they’re a fine shoe to wear while trying.