1460 Pascal Boot, Hell Print; made by Dr. Martens, 1960 –
Smooth leather, air-cushioned welted sole, yellow stitching
“For five decades Dr. Martens have been worn by workers, for whom they were designed, but also by rebels and non-conformists of all stripes.” – Dr. Martens
Shoes often seem more independent from the body than other clothes, as they retain their form when not in use – for Dr. Martens, the heavy leather stands free. Dr. Martens are durable, and in a broken-in pair the leather is soft and buttery, shaped to the wearer’s foot through repeated actions. As the soles meet the ground, the thick treads on the sole rub down as callouses build up, an exchange of thickness.
Dr. Martens, or Docs, are characterized both by their history and their day-to-day practicality. Their close relationships to their wearers makes it difficult to describe generally the physicality of the shoe. The 1460 8-eye boot, so named for the date of its release (1 April 1960), is the most widespread style of Dr. Martens, with various iterations of the shoe manufactured in the over fifty years since its first release. However, the general shape and construction of the shoe have remained the same. The leather body, connected to the sturdy sole with iconic yellow stitching, features a bulbous toe and a thick middle tapering up and cutting off a few centimeters above the anklebone. The back of the ankle is home to a thick tag with the words Air Wair embroidered in yellow, maintained since the original design.
In a broken-in pair, the leather is soft and buttery, well-formed to the shape of the wearer’s foot. As the laces are tightened over and over and the leather softens, the action of lacing the boot becomes like lacing a corset, as the sides of the shoe are drawn closer and closer together until they can form to the foot no further. The soles are manufactured thick and durable, inflexible and resilient, originally designed to relieve foot pain as well as survive industrial settings. To break in a pair of Dr. Martens 1460s is a ritualized process for some and an exercise in pain tolerance for others – the shoes are made tough and take time to form to the foot. The thick treads of the soles wear down over time, revealing how individuals move, and the toe wrinkles as the foot repeats the action of stepping. At the same time, the way the shoe rubs against the foot creates calluses and bumps – the shoe shapes the wearer much as the wearer shapes the shoe.
I got my favorite pair of Docs my sophomore year of high school – 1460 Pascals with portions of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights printed on them. The design draws characters from the triptych section depicting hell, or the turn-of-the-15th-century Netherlandish idea of hell. Contorted nude figures are strewn across the bleak terrain as a city burns in the background. A man decaying like a tree, arms twisted and chest hollow, looks out at the viewer from the side of the boot with a bulbous musical instrument on his head. Above, a blade with a pair of ears. On the inside of the foot, the city burns. A rabbit plays the violin on the toe – except you can’t see much of the violin now. On the top of the toe, most of the design is scuffed off. The same with the inside ankle, where the medial malleolus sticks out and forces the leather of one boot to rub against the other, fading the dark scene to white and then tan.
That year, I was in AP Art History, and the thematically-appropriate boots quickly became my good-luck shoes on test days. Now, at the end of my freshman year of college, I sit down at my desk at least every other morning to do the laces. At first, I would do the laces slowly, carefully, drawing the stiff sides of the shoe together and feeling the stiffness of the new leather against my foot. Now that I’m on my third pair of black shoelaces, I don’t even have to look. The aglets have again begun to fall away, the tips of the laces fraying without their guard. One has been replaced with a tightly-rolled piece of clear tape. Still, putting on my boots is an act of reverence, a prayer. I do not think, but do, letting the motion begin my day as I pull the worn sides tight.
The wrinkles are permanent and shaped around my foot, the leather softened in motion and stiffened when not worn. The leather has caved in on itself around my ankles as I pulled it in to fit, and the tongue cannot be unwrinkled. The sole has little traction remaining on the ball of the foot – a poor choice for walking the dog on the ice, I’ve learned. The treads have worn away the most on the outside heel, an effect of walking on the outside part of my foot to take weight off my high arches. Reaching into the inside of the shoe, my fingers brush over the craters left by my toes, the depression of the ball, and the ridges in between. By now, the wear pattern reinforces my poor walking habits, and I have to consciously work to roll my foot correctly; the boot yearns to push my foot back into sophomore year.
Except, I don’t want to go back to sophomore year. The end of sophomore year was when I came out for good, cut my long hair off, and started making people listen when I told them I wasn’t a girl, not anymore. It was not just the Docs – despite how important they were (and are) to me. But Docs stand out, especially Docs with tree-men and flute-birds and sinners all in Hell. Docs are heavy and wearing them changes how you walk. For me, they were the masculine equivalent of high heels in the strength of their effect, but instead of making your hips sway and your chest stick out, Docs made my steps sure and my stride wide. I may not have passed as a man yet, but at least I had an awesome pair of boots.