How Dr. Martens Army Boots Conquered the Fashion World

Guess who sparked the trend that keeps coming back in style?

It was sometime in the mid 1960s, possibly the Marquee Club, or maybe it was the Railway Hotel, but one thing is certain: By the time The Who's guitarist Pete Townshend left the stage that night, the youth counterculture would have two new things to get excited about. The first was the windmill—Townshend's whirling-arm, power-chord attack—and the second was Dr. Martens boots.

To be precise, eight-eyelet 1460 Dr. Martens boots. Townshend had just bought the pair at a local Army Navy store for £2. And why? Because he was pissed off. "I was sick of dressing up as a Christmas tree in flowing robes that got in the way of my guitar playing," Townshend told rock chronicler Martin Roach. "So I thought I'd move onto utility wear." Soon, the youth of England moved with him

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Prior to 1966, only postal carriers, policemen and factory workers wore Dr. Martens. And little reason why: The boots were simple, durable and comfortable. But Townshend's borrowing the no-fuss garb of working-class Brits proved that anyone could borrow Dr. Martens. In the ensuing half century, just about every group did: punks, goths, skinheads, psychobillies. "They're all united in their use of Dr. Martens as an expression of their individual style," said the brand's U.S. marketing vp Kevin Diehl, who added, "Our ability to endure speaks to the utilitarian style of the product."

And endure Dr. Martens has. In fact, not only has the brand never gone out of style, but millennial celebs have made the boots a hotter commodity than the punks did. Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Amber Rose have all hit the pavement in their Docs—and Miley Cyrus rode that wrecking ball wearing hers.

Strange that Dr. Martens has long found itself at the epicenter of fashion, since fashion had nothing to do with its creation. In 1945, German Army Dr. Klaus Märtens injured his ankle while skiing. As he recuperated, Märtens thought up an alternative to the cumbersome Army boots he didn't want to put back on—something made with an air-cushioned sole and supple leather. In 1952, Märtens went into production, melting down surplus Luftwaffe rubber to make his air-filled soles. A few years later, the Griggs family of Northamptonshire bought the rights to manufacture the boot in the U.K., modifying the name for English ears and naming its boot the 1460 after the first production date: 1 April 1960.

Since Dr. Martens hit U.S. stores in 1984, its working-class roots have helped it to blend effortlessly into subcultures both male-dominated (skinheads and grunge boys) and otherwise (feminists and lesbians). It has to be the only article of apparel that can be found in the closets of Pixie Geldof, David Beckham and (reportedly) the Dalai Lama. Which only proves that the most enduring style is the one that lets you be comfortable while you play. Just ask Pete Townshend.  

Photos: Getty Images

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.