Dr Martens – A History of Self-Expression – Part 5

As the 1960s progressed, London began to (temporarily) replace Paris as the fashion capital of the world. The gaudy hues of Carnaby Street ruled the day and the idea of “Swinging London” began to take off. But, although selling well to the working class, the bulky Dr Martens boot made little inroads into the youth subculture. The Teddy Boy phenomenon had come too early and the mutually-antagonistic Mod / Rocker cultures championed other footwear.

However, it was from the ranks of the Mods that a spin-off group would emerge which would begin to promote the wearing of the Dr Martens boot – the Skinheads.

The Mods were a group made of the most flamboyant individuals, with a subsection of more minimalist dressers being known as the “Hard Mods”. This latter subgroup were proud of their working-class roots and rejected the “Summer of Love” concept that was espoused by the culture of the time.

Often based in grimy council estates, the Hard Mod group is seen as the precursor to the Skinhead movement, sporting cropped jeans and large boots as far back as 1964. By 1968, people recognisable as Skinheads had begun to emerge. Initially, the haircut (or lack thereof) was less important than the heavy boots as a defining characteristic of the movement. Dr Martens boots were rarely used at this time, with National Coal Board miner’s boots or army boots being preferred.

It was not until Dr Martens’ predecessor steel toe-capped boots were classed as offensive weapons by the police that Dr Martens themselves became standard-issue for Skinheads. Dr Martens uniformity of appearance appealed to the Skinheads, who had something of a gang mentality. The utilitarian appearance was something of an anti-fashion statement and a nod to working-class roots. Additionally, the Dr Martens boot made the wearer feel taller and tougher: a key component of the Skinhead feel. And finally, the fact that the Dr Martens boot polished up better than rival boots was an important factor for the Skinheads. One particular trend was to “antique” the boots: polishing a cherry red pair with black shoe polish, then rubbing it off, leaving black rivulets in the creases.

British Skinhead CultureThis endorsement by Skinheads of the Dr Martens boot caused Griggs’s sales to skyrocket: they went from 1000 pairs a week to 6000 pairs a week. Indeed, until 1994, the company never advertised at all nor had the usual travelling shoe reps out selling their brand.

It’s worth noting that the British Skinhead cut is not actually derived from the US serviceman’s crew-cut (although the US military command in the UK was so concerned their servicemen might be mistaken for Skinheads that they actually allowed them to wear hairpieces while off-duty!) Some have suggested that the ultra-short cut was a direct contrast to the Skinhead’s reviled opponent: the long-haired Hippy. Baldness was not popular and occasionally large “mutton chops” sideburns, similar to those seen in Victorian times, were sported.

Musically, the Skinheads were into Reggae, Soul and Ska. Skinhead lifestyle was closely-linked to music. Within a short time of their appearance, Skinheads were facing their detractors. The phrase “bovver boys” sprang into being, based on the idea that Skinheads went out to “look for bother (trouble)”. To the present day, the word “Skinhead” is used to describe anti-social elements.

End of Part 5 – check back soon for Part 6…