The History of Dr. Martens: From Workwear Staple to Fashion Icon

Dr. Martens. Doc Martens. Docs.

Whatever you call them, these shoes and boots are some of the most iconic footwear around. Dr. Martens have it all: They combine style, comfort, durability, and individuality into one utilitarian shoe.

Originally a working-class shoe, Dr. Martens have since become synonymous with self-expression and rebellion. Let’s take a look at just how these shoes came to be the household name they are today.

The Origins of Dr. Martens

Let’s rewind the clock to the year 1945. It was the end of World War II and the beginning of the iconic Dr. Martens.

A Tale of Two Doctors

German doctor Klaus Märtens was used to wearing his standard-issue military boots during his time in the army. But the boots became unbearable after he broke his foot skiing in 1945. They were too stiff and uncomfortable on his injured foot.

So Märtens took matters into his own hands. He drew from his prior experience as a cobbler and redesigned the army boot with air-cushioned soles and soft leather. His design didn’t really take off until 1947 when Märtens partnered with his friend and engineer, Dr. Herbert Funck. Together, they recycled military supplies to create the iconic air-tight cushions in the sole that separated these boots from their army predecessors.

Interestingly, middle-aged housewives were the first demographic to really take an interest in the boots. They loved the innovative comfort and durability, and their demand for the shoes drove business during the 1950s.

By the end of the 1950s, sales were booming. Märtens and Funck decided to expand into international sales, and they found the British company R. Griggs Group Limited — or, more accurately, the Griggs company found them.

The Move from Germany to the U.K.

The Griggs family had been making work boots in England for decades, so it was a natural fit. They bought manufacturing rights and took over the production of the shoes. The company made some slight changes, like adding the now-iconic yellow stitching and designing a new sole pattern, and then sold the boots under the name Airwair.

The first pair of Airwairs came out on April 1, 1960 (written 1/4/1960), hence the name 1460. These eight-holed boots were the beginning of the legendary Dr. Martens we know and love today.

Still, these shoes were marketed as working boots. The intended market was the U.K. working class, primarily police officers, factory workers, and post office workers. But that was about to change.

Dr. Martens in Subculture

While the 1960s are known for being a decade of peace and love, not everyone supported that movement.

Celebrity Promotion

Dr. Martens really came into the spotlight when Pete Townshend of The Who wore a pair on stage for his performances in the late 1960s. Townshend said himself that choosing Dr. Martens was a direct rejection of the psychedelic fashion of the decade. He wanted a shoe that reflected his individuality — and worked well for concerts. His choice was the utilitarian Dr. Martens boot, which launched the shoe into a whole other level of popularity across various subcultures.

The Shoe of Punk and Grunge Subcultures

Moving into the 1970s and ’80s, a new subculture arose: punk. While the punk culture grew with punk rock music, its identity is much more than that. As the new rock rebels, they chose fashion that made a statement about freedom from authority. So they wore mohawks, safety pins, and — yes, you guessed it — Dr. Martens.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the grunge subgenre grew out of the punk rock scene, popularized by the U.S. band Nirvana. Since grunge borrowed a lot from punk rock, it only made sense for the fashion to be reminiscent of the punk scene — which meant that the grunge subculture also embraced Dr. Martens as part of their staple look.

Again, Dr. Martens became a symbol of rebellion and individuality, which continues to be a core part of the brand identity today.

Dr. Martens in Fashion

In the early 2000s, the Dr. Martens brand suffered significant financial loss and neared bankruptcy. But it quickly bounced back and again became a fashion staple for alternative and subcultural groups — and anyone looking to express their individuality.

Collaborations

Thanks to the popularity of these boots, numerous fashion designers, artists, and brands have collaborated with Dr. Martens to create one-of-a-kind footwear. There are far too many collaborations to list here, but one of the most notable ones is the Dr. Martens and Hello Kitty collaboration. While seemingly opposite styles, the Hello Kitty brand actually has a lot in common with Dr. Martens. Both brands are about out-of-the-box individualism — which is why they have done several collaborations.

Dr. Martens has also collaborated with the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to create a unique boot with hand-drawn designs. True to the brand’s deep connection with musical subgenres, Dr. Martens has also collaborated with bands like Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols.

More recently, Dr. Martens has done collabs with designers like Rick Owens and Marc Jacobs.

Women’s Dr. Martens

Dr. Martens have always played a key role in women’s fashion — and remember, the first owners of Dr. Martens boots were 1950s U.K. housewives. Once subcultures embraced the shoes, both men and women wore Dr. Martens. And the Griggs company made them a proudly unisex brand that broke down gender barriers, echoing the values of rebellion and individuality.

Not only has Dr. Martens done collabs with female-focused brands like X-Girl, but female fashion icons of today continue to keep Dr. Martens in the spotlight. Trendsetters like the Hadid sisters and Hailey Beiber have paired their favorite Dr. Martens with everything from a summer dress to casual wear, confirming that these shoes work for literally any style.

Dr. Martens: The Shoe of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Dr. Martens boots are the essence of individuality and self-expression. The iconic style has survived through various style trends and movements over the past 70-plus years. And they are still making waves with their innovative collaborations and timeless look.

With the current resurgence of ’90s fashion trends — including the grunge style that embraced Dr. Martens — it seems there is no end in sight to the lasting impact of these iconic shoes. So here’s to another seven decades of rebels and trendsetters proudly wearing Dr. Martens as a form of self-expression.

Looking for a new pair of kicks? Check out the latest arrivals at JD Sports.

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