What's Up Doc?

Dr Martens are 40 this year - is that why the only person you know who wears them is your dad? OLIVER SWANTON sticks the boot in
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twenty-year-old Monica Jones has five assorted pairs of Dr Martens boots and shoes back home in the States. Yet she's in Covent Garden, London, to buy a sixth. She's also buying a pair each for her sister and a cousin in St Louis. Her brother Brad, 18, is buying a pair "to order" for his girlfriend, and their friend John Zumwalt, 21, is buying his third pair. An absent friend had wanted to get a pair emblazoned with the Union Jack, but they didn't have his size. He was told he might get them in Carnaby Street and he took off, clutching an A-Z.

To my right a gaggle of American girls debate the new open-toed sandal. Upstairs, a moody adolescent Spanish boy persuades his mother of the virtues of what worryingly looks like a pair of jackboots. On the top floor a stylish thirtysomething French couple buy sensible shoes for their toddler.

For teens on the tourist trail, a trip to the four-storey Dr Martens flagship store in Covent Garden is as much a part of "doing London, England" as the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds and the changing of the guard. (This, despite a lawsuit from US firm Sketchers last week, claiming that Dr Martens are as much made in Thailand as "Made in England" - the tag proudly stamped on each boot, next to a Union Jack.)

From Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to Metrojaya in Kuala Lumpur Dr Martens is branded as the sine qua non of British youth footwear (simply translated in today's parlance as "without which no British teen would be seen dead"). Dr Martens is not selling anything as mundane as shoes - it's flogging a slice of British youth culture.

And here's the rub. The truth is that at home on the streets of Britain, plugged-in teens don't give a monkeys. This is the 40th anniversary year for the Doc (there will be celebrations in the autumn), yet the only Brit I saw in the store was asking for directions to the Duffer of St George shop. Fifteen years ago then yes, they'd have been everywhere you turned, but now they're part of history, something you look at on foreign teenagers' feet and think, remember when? So how did we fall out of love with the Doc?

Well, first we had to fall in love with them. The DM story started in 1945, which might seem odd considering that it's only the 40th anniversary now, but that's because DMs actually started out as German. It was in 1945 that, recovering from a skiing accident, Dr Klaus Maertens of Munich invented the air-cushioned sole using salvaged Luftwaffe rubber and old soldiers' uniforms. The next year he ran into an old university friend, Dr Herbert Funck and they mass-produced his revolutionary sole, selling vast numbers, mainly to housewives.

In 1959 the Griggs family acquired the global rights to the Maertens' sole and Anglicised the name. They spent 10 years selling them to postmen. Then the hand of fate touched DM: in 1968-69 the new menace of football hooliganism swept the terraces. Police forces up and down the country declared the steel toe-capped army and miners' boots favoured by skinheads as an offensive weapon. The skins switched to Docs. "Skinheads wore oxblood DMs - so the spilt blood wouldn't show," says Martin Raymond, senior lecturer at the London College of Fashion.

The skins' interest kickstarted a long and powerful association with British pop music and youth fashion. From skins to punks, psychobillies, grebos, mods, 2 Tone, indie kids and travellers, each new subculture adopted the grooved soles and made them their own. Sometimes they claimed it was function before fashion. It wasn't. The boots signified you were a paid- up member of the tribe.

The tribal elders (its musical stars) didn't just wear the boots, they embraced them. Pete Townshend, Ian Dury, Sid Vicious, Joe Strummer, Buster Bloodvessel, Suggs, Siouxsie Sioux, Morrissey, Shane MacGowan, Sinead O'Connor - celebrity endorsements don't get better. And Dr Martens know it: echoes of the Hard Rock Cafe pervade their flagship store, with glass cabinets full of signed photos, boots, guitars, Lambrettas, flags and records at every turn.

But in the early Eighties, something amazing happened: the DM hit the mainstream. They were practical, cheap, you could wear them with anything and - especially important for women (major devotees) - they were comfortable.

"Docs were life-changing for me," says Yvonne, who was 18 when she bought her first pair, in 1983. "It's impossible to imagine what it was like before because Docs changed everything, but I hadn't had a comfy pair of shoes in my life. Suddenly you had this whole generation of young women who wouldn't wear anything else. We wore them everywhere, with everything. And because they were so clumpy they made your legs look thin as well - you can see how women of my generation still chase that effect, in trainers or desert boots."

"They were seriously practical for our climate," agrees shoe designer Oliver Sweeney. "They were brilliant - shoes with attitude. Before then, shoes tended to be neat, light and impractical."

For nearly a decade, DM ruled the country, but then started the long fall from grace (in style terms, if not in sales terms). These days the only style-conscious Brits prepared to be seen dead in them are sections of the gay community who have subverted the boot's historically violent macho image into a gay icon.

So what happened? "They started going out of fashion from 1988," says Martin Raymond. "DMs were the last things you could wear dancing in a club on E. They became non-functional as well as non-fashionable." Ravers wore trainers, so Nike and Adidas stole the DM's air-cushioned thunder, and the era of the trainer began.

But DMs also became a victim of their success. They created such a huge demand for the practical comfort shoe that it was only a matter of time before others followed and the market fragmented.

"There were a million competitors," says Oliver Sweeney. "DMs had the market to themselves for a long time. But nowadays shoe design is so advanced, plus the Far East has become a major supplier."

DMs became a victim of their own success in another way. They were everywhere, as likely to turn up on the feet of cardigan-wearing school teachers as smacked-out psychobillies clutching cans of Special Brew. The Pope wears Dr Marten's for goodness sake. They've become part of the background noise of life and have become drastically devalued for it. "It's no longer a statement to wear them," says Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine. "They've been castrated. I wouldn't say they're unfashionable, they're just a different animal, a mass-market product."

This process is so inevitable that the question of why DMs stopped being hip is probably the wrong one: as Ted Polhemus, author of 1994's Style Surfing and the Customised Body among many others, points out, DM did extraordinarily well to hang on to British youth subculture for as long as it did. Today labels spread out from their original group, go mainstream and subsequently vanish at alarming speed. They no longer have a direct connection with young people's lifestyles as they did for their parents. Clued-up teens are far more interested in "surfing" different styles, mixing and matching divergent "adjectives" to express their own multi- faceted creativity. "Nobody," asserts Polhemus, "wants to be a cliche anymore."

"There's no such thing as youth culture," he adds. "Young people don't define themselves as being young people, let alone as a specific group, like mods or rockers. We're definitely post-fashion and post-tribal." In any one teenage peer group the only uniformity is individuality.

So where does that leave the DM? "Dr Martens are selling a very powerful adjective," Polhemus continues, "one that has a rich history and vocabulary. They should view this as a liberation. They should get out of the pigeon- holing business and get post-modern; get really funky with it, play around with the context of the brand. They've got to defy the usual cliched expectations."

And if all else fails - well there's always the revival to look forward to. Could that be imminent? Martin Raymond considers the question. "Well there is an Eighties revival... but I think it will take a few years. The truth is that they're still a fashion farce and it's only sad Eighties types that are wearing them."

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