Thrifting 101, Part 27: The history of Dr. Martens

In 1991, I was sixteen years old, solidly entrenched in my prime eye-rolling phase and completely obsessed with Beverly Hills 90210, The Smiths, and Rolling Stone magazine. I wore ripped jeans and crop tops and floral babydoll dresses I'd thrifted from little hole-in-the-wall stores on the Hell's Kitchen section of 9th Avenue in NYC, a neighborhood riddled with hookers, drug dealers are all sorts of fascinating, derelict creatures. It was there that I first spied objects of sartorial lust so desired, so coveted, they eventually brought me to my mother's feet, begging to be purchased. She said they were clunky, ungraceful, and downright ugly. I argued otherwise. We fought. We debated. I attempted to negotiate chores and went so far as to offer a peace treaty with my brother in exchange for the object in question. Finally, she relented. I had wonAnd these were my prize:

If you are a child of the nineties like I am, or perhaps just infatuated with nineties style, you are well aware that Dr. Martens were the definitive footwear of that era. My friends and I obsessed over them, debating the merits of solid colors over patterns, Mary Janes over oxfords, 8 hole over 14. We cajoled our parents into plunking down $90 for them. We changed out the laces, decided we hated them, and changed them again. Our relatives whined that the shoes were ugly. They made a distinctive clomping noise when you walked. They made your feet look ten times their size. And yet we loved them.

Dr. Martens, once deemed an "offensive weapon" by U.K police forces back in the early seventies, have firmly made their place into mainstream fashion. When I spied a pair at Urban Outfitters the other day, I knew they deserved a post covering the history of the brand in my Thrifting 101 series.

Dr. Martens

Doc Martens had their humble beginnings with Klaus Marten, a doctor in the German army during WWII. After injuring his ankle in a skiing accident, he found that army-issue boots were too uncomfortable on his feet. While recuperating, he designed an improvement to the boot with an air-padded soles and soft leather. It wasn't until after the war that he paired with a university friend, Dr. Herbert Funck, and went into business selling his boots in 1947. Surprisingly, the comfortable, durable shoes were a big hit with housewives, with 80% of sales in the first decade going towards women.

Sales had grown so much by 1952 that they opened a factory in Munich. In 1959, the company had grown large enough that Märtens and Funck looked at marketing the footwear internationally. British shoe manufacturer R. Griggs Group bought patent rights to manufacturer the shoes in the United Kingdom. They anglicized the name, slightly re-shaped the heel to make them fit better, added the trademark yellow stitching, and trademarked the soles as AirWair.

The first Dr. Martens boots came out in the U.K in April 1960, in an eight eyelet, cherry red smooth leather design known as the 1460 (shown above, which is still in production today.) They were popular among workers such a postmen, police officers and factory workers. In the early nineteen seventies, British soccer fans began modifying the boots, removing the leather from the toes and exposing the steel toecaps to intimidate the opposing team's fans. U.K. police forces determined that boots with exposed steel toecaps were “an offensive weapon” and barred them from soccer matches. With fans continuing to use their Dr. Martens to batter fans of opposing teams, police developed a new tactic: they insisted that anyone wearing Dr. Martens remove the laces from the boots, reasoning that loose boots could do less damage. This move was met with fans’ smuggling in spare laces, with some enlisting their girlfriends to sneak the laces into stadiums. The problems became so severe that fans were sometimes forced to remove their boots for the duration of games. Boots could not be reclaimed until opposition fans left the stadium, at which point the barefoot fans would dash to reclaim their boots or, hopefully, a newer pair previously belonging to another. 

According to Martin Roach, author of the definitive history of DMs, Doctor Martens: The Story of an Icon,  reported to The Guardian that it was not until Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter with the Who, wore them in around 1966 that they became fashionable. Townshend recalls buying DMs because he was tired of the foppish clothes that were so popular during the 1960s. "I was sick of dressing up as a Christmas tree in flowing robes that got in the way of my guitar playing," he says, "so I thought I'd move on to utility wear." The air-cushioned soles helped him bounce around on stage, and wearing the boots, Townshend explained, reminded him of the working-class surroundings in which he had grown up

By the early 1970s, Dr. Martens were ubiquitous among the rising British punk rock stars. Sid Vicious was among the first punk to wear DM's, and soon it seemed all punk fans were wearing them. Dr. Martens boots were no longer the footwear of the working class; they were the footwear of rebel youth. Dr Martens had been taken up by mods and glam rockers, psychobillies and goths, but it was members of the emerging skinhead movement who would be the most feared wearers. It was because of the actions of some skinheads that the Dr Marten became associated with violence. 

The irony was that even as violent groups such as the skinheads were wearing the boots, they were also on the feet of the police they were clashing with. 

By the 2000s, Dr. Martens were sold exclusively under the AirWair name and came in dozens of different styles, including conventional black shoes, sandals and steel-toed boots. In April 2003, under pressure from declining sales, the Dr. Martens company ceased all production in the United Kingdom, and moved their factory to China and Thailand. With this change also came the end of the company's vegan-friendly non-leather products, which were produced since the early 1990s. In 2007, Dr. Martens began producing footwear again in England, in the Cobbs Lane Factory in Wollaston. These products are part of the "Vintage" line, which the company advertises as being made to the original specs. In April 2010, the Dr. Martens 14-Hole black leather boot won two fashion awards at the 2010 Fashion Show in New York City - one for the 'most popular men's footwear in latest fashion' and the other for 'best counter-cultural footwear of the decade.'


  1. My mom fought a solid battle for 2 years before finally caving in and forking over the then unthinkable amount of cash for a pair of classic black Doc Martens.
    I wore them for 4 years. Rain or shine, autumn, winter spring and even in the summer sometimes. At the end they were completely worn out though still wearable when I finally moved on.
    My mom still says they were the cheapest shoes she ever bought me taking in the mileage and the fact that she hardly bought me a pair of shoes in the Doc Martens years..

  2. I have always hated Docs. They are combats to me. The generation gap is real.

  3. i got my first pair of Docs in London. up until then, the only Docs i had ever seen were the traditional men's 8-hole boots -- having extremely narrow feet, even super-thick socks wouldn't have made them wearable for me. when we were in London, i saw my first-ever Doc Martens shop, with colors, sizes, and styles as far as the eye could see.
    i spied a pair of ladies' Docs -- very similar to the traditional 8-hole style, but cut narrower for womens' feet. they were MINE. i had those babies for, gosh, 15 years? heck, they may still be preserved in the back of my closet somewhere. they were worn with jeans, short, babydoll dresses...they were decorated with paints and pens.

    later i also acquired a pair of the traditional 8-hole boots covered in forest green velvet. i LOVED those boots. but they still never came close to my first pair.

    these days, i have had my eye on the Doc Martens look again. i think it may be time to take the plunge. :)

  4. I was a child of the 80's and wanted those so bad, but my mother didn't give in.

  5. dr martens will last forever. I have 12 pair that i have owned for years and still wear them all. Best buy for your money because you can wear them so long without them wearing out.


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