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Photo: PYMCA/Brittany Holloway-Brown
Photo: PYMCA/Brittany Holloway-Brown

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The Life and Times of My Doc Martens

If only these 18-year-old boots could talk

Growing up, my parents had sensible politics that made them believe that fashion choices are not a reflection of a girl’s moral character and that self-expression was a worthwhile habit to develop. This meant that, growing up in the 1990s, my wardrobe was both literally and figuratively quite colorful, that word people use when they don’t want to say “tacky” or “bizarre.”

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At age 11, my mother bought me JNCO jeans, the highly coveted and now comically hideous wide-leg pants that were a fixture at raves and three-stage music festivals in the 1990s. I was allowed to wear T-shirts for bands with sexually explicit or overtly suicidal lyrical content. (Hole, Nirvana, and Garbage made the most frequent appearances.) I combed black and neon-green streaks into my blonde hair, wore three to nine necklaces at a time, and never met a vinyl baby-dress I didn't hope to get married in one day.

And so I was alarmed when, in 1997, my mother was reluctant to buy me a pair of black Dr. Marten 1460 boots.

Eddie Vedder wore them: sturdy, leather lace-up boots in a smooth finish, with eight eyelets and signature yellow stitching between the rubber sole and the leather. I wouldn't normally use a celebrity crush as style inspiration, but Vedder seemed like the type of imaginary boyfriend who would share clothes with a woman as both a political and personal statements, so I gave myself some leeway.

Back to those 1460s. Accustomed to having even my most outlandish sartorial tastes indulged, and stricken by an increasing awareness that the iconic boot was a necessary wardrobe staple for a badass such as myself, I was incredulous at my mother's reticence to buy them for me. Her issue was not with their popularity among known Marilyn Manson fans or their long-expired association with skinheads, only with their price point. She was concerned that I'd quickly outgrow them or not take the care or precautions necessary to preserve them as long as I could.

The boots were $125 at every retail location I checked. Something about the pricing consistency built my confidence in them as reliable.

My mother is a smart woman. My shoe collection was mostly populated by vinyl and glitter-soaked Skechers, open-toed Bongo platforms, and a pair of Airwalks which I constantly wore out and had to replace. If a shoe had a white rubber base, I reliably decorated it with hearts, band names, and favorite logos with black Sharpie and gel pens, then quickly grew tired of these indelicate footwear tattoos.

Though I had lingered on the edge of a sincere interest in music for years, 1997 was the year I did more to keep up with my older sister's taste in alternative and indie bands fronted by women and soft-but-angry men. The musicians I was drawn to represented, as the lazy name of their genre implied, an alternative approach to the operating orders of the world, an approach evident in their style as much as in the substance of their art. I subscribed to music magazines like Spin and NME, ordered back issues, and insisted on going to more concerts. Though the grunge days of the early 1990s saw the resurgence of Dr. Martens on the festival circuit and in crusty but glamorous magazine spreads, the iconic boot stuck around in style for long enough for it to still be appealing when I could actually wear an adult-sized shoe.

It was barely a size 6, but it was an adult shoe nevertheless. My friend Mairead, who owned a burgundy, steel-toed pair herself, and I were high-achieving students with fairly clean disciplinary records who both had a ravenous hunger for the attention of boys and an inner revolutionary style icon lying dormant just beneath our well-adjusted suburban exteriors. Mairead describes the appeal of the boot at our age and in that time as having been "the perfect tangible outward expression of my inner angst, with an edgy thing that I wanted to be so badly, and so was not." These were not merely shoes to us, they were also statements, worn ID tags that could tell people more about us than our names and interests ever could.

The boots were $125 at every retail location I checked. Something about that pricing consistency built my confidence in them as reliable, unbending to the whims of mark-ups that other brands had to endure. My mother ultimately said it wouldn't hurt to try them on and see if I really liked them. So we made the trip to North County Fair Mall in Escondido, California. It's since been converted to a Westfield Shopping Town, a desperate attempt to rebrand it as an upscale shopping destination. But back then it was an exceedingly average mall in which the shoe chain Journeys was on the higher end of the scale.

The sales associate seemed familiar with the scene of the hesitant parent and the hopeful preteen and preemptively assuaged many of my mother's fears by noting the exceptional durability of the shoe and the fact that he wore his all the damned time, and even joking that my mom could borrow them if I were to outgrow them, since we were the same size.

I made plans to debut them at a world-renowned fashion destination: Mesa Verde Middle School in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Penasquitos.

It was a gravity-laden purchase. I made extensive plans to debut them appropriately at a world-renowned fashion destination: Mesa Verde Middle School in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Penasquitos. Though I hated how my legs looked in flat shoes, I wore a plaid skirt and tights to school so that the boots were fully visible —€” a sartorial display of The Craft meets Clueless. Counterfeits were popular, so in anticipation of questions of authenticity, I planned to give a brief but authoritative presentation of the "Made in England" labeling on the bottom as proof that these were the real thing.

While the mix of awe and envy from my peers was part of the appeal, I truly loved the way the boots looked and made me feel when I stomped about in them. Though they're traditionally a workman's boot, I treated them as formal shoes and wore them sparingly to preserve them. I listened with more than passing interest when the sales associate told me how to clean leather. I avoided certain weather conditions. I sat them upright. I took real care. We had two solid years together, a highlight of which was me winning "Best Dressed" in the eighth grade yearbook, the only superlative I ever care to have won.

By high school, the beginning of a new millennium carried enough symbolic heft to turn youth fashion trends toward the cosmos. Metallic pants and even higher doses of glitter and shimmer began to appear in Seventeen and in Delia's catalogs. And so I quietly retired my Dr. Martens to the back of the two rows of shoes I lined up in my closet, satisfied that they'd seen their fair share of wear and proud that they remained mostly intact.

When I crossed the country from San Diego to New York for college in 2003, I had to be economical about what I took with me. I painstakingly curated the best garments from my wardrobe after studying the pages of fashion magazines. The Dr. Martens came with me too, part of a small pile of nostalgic objects: my childhood teddy bear, several photo albums, a white Precious Moments bible with my full name inscribed on the cover, and a small figurine of Flora, one of a set of the three fairies in Sleeping Beauty, the other two of which belonged to my two best friends. The shoes came along as childhood artifacts, more representative of a person I had been than the one that I planned to be in the future.

At NYU in 2003, the pointy-toed boot with a stiletto heel reigned supreme and I surrendered to the trend without complaint, shoving my feet into the narrow spaces that fashion demanded. Though my college career was speckled with late-night debaucheries, I countered those adventures with volunteer work — and it was to pull weeds in community gardens and paint murals in public schools that I brought my Dr. Martens out of retirement. Their warmth and durability made trudging through soil and climbing up and down ladders as rowdy adolescents expressed themselves through paint more tolerable than fashionable footwear and more cool-looking than sneakers would have.

Instead of my feet outgrowing the boots, the boots have outgrown their initial significance as a mark of identity and style.

The boots reentered my wardrobe more formally when I finally accepted that skinny jeans were not going anywhere soon and that surrendering to their takeover of the denim market was actually a net gain for my fashion profile. Unlike the late 1990s when jeans seemed designed to purposely obscure one's footwear, skinny jeans made it possible for the entire boot to shine.

Miley Cyrus loved Dr. Martens so much that she forewent clothing entirely save for a cherry-red pair of 1490s in her 2013 video for "Wrecking Ball." Style darling Chloe Sevigny has appeared in a similar cherry pair and Emma Watson has been snapped in the same 1460s that I have, while my personal hero Amber Rose has them in a shinier patent finish. I personally prefer the way they look in contrast to a heather-grey pair of skinny jeans I keep in heavy rotation, but I've been known to pair them with skirts and dresses in homage to my preteen style.

I've often read that our attachment to objects is about the safety of abundance and can't count the number of times I've heard, "The best things in life aren't things." Every six months or so for the last few years, I'll see an especially compelling minimalist home profile on an interior design blog and become convinced that I should massively downgrade the number of possessions I own. Though the impulse usually wears off after I've collected a single bag of clothing for donation, I am currently in the process of the most significant object purge of my adult life. I own plenty of black boots that I wear more often and better match my general style profile, yet the Dr. Martens never come under consideration for disposal.

In the 18 years since buying them, I have worn and torn through countless shoes and boots that were more expensive and supposedly superbly made. My mother's reaction to my preservation of the Dr. Martens evolved from pleasant surprise to slight bemusement, to the point that now she likely just wants me to replace them so I don't look like an preteen urchin at the age of 30. Instead of my feet outgrowing the boots, the boots have outgrown their initial significance as a mark of identity and style —€” as the physical representation of a time when I was trusted with an adult-sized responsibility, and delivered on it.

At a factual level, all I did was take decent care of a pair of boots that were outside the normal price range for our middle-class family. But beneath my mild insolence at having to convince my mother to make the purchase, I did make a thorough evaluation of just how much I wanted them. In some ways, I willed myself to love them so as not to let my mom down. My boots aren't particularly exceptional, and neither is my ownership of them. There were also plenty of different behavioral expectations of me as I became an adolescent, and then an adult — but those are harder to place in time. I can't see them in photographs. I can't hold them in my hand. And I certainly can't put them on my feet and walk out the door bearing the weight of sturdy leather and kept promises the way I can a pair of reliable, classic boots.

Alana Massey is a writer whose first collection of essays, All the Lives I Want, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing.


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