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Doc Martens a symbol of utilitarian fashion style

Courtesy of Janice Rabe

For 52 years, Dr. Martens boots have been representative of edgy functionality, designed for factory workers of the 1960s and hailed by generations of purple-haired rebellious youth as tangible symbols of their solidarity to the working class and  their rejection of social norms.

But the edginess of the counterculture movement has now become fashionable, and Dr. Martens has evolved from being worn solely on the feet of blue-collar workers and rebellious youth to also gracing the manicured toes of top tier models.

This fall, London It Girl and 2010 TIME cover girl Agyness Deyn unveiled a debut collection in collaboration with Dr. Martens. Deyn, who has previously modeled for the brand, is a world class model whose distinctive androgynous style embodies the marriage between high fashion and edgy function.

Deyn’s versatile style is echoed in the fashion ethos of Mills College student Janice Rabe. “I love mixing ultra feminine styles [like] pearls, lace, and dresses with masculine ones [like] studs, combat boots, jean, converse, and leather,” she said, explaining how Dr. Martens are her wardrobe staple.

For Dr. Martens diehards like Rabe, who was wearing a cotton dress with a grey pair of Dr. Martens that zipped up the back, the brand represents functionality as well as individuality, two traits that are representative of the fashion aesthetic at Mills College.

Mills students are all about “embracing individuality and pushing the boundaries,” Rabe said. It is no wonder, then, that Mills is a hotbed for Dr.Martens. “Look, they’re everywhere,” Rabe said as she pointed a tattooed arm at a girl walking ahead of her on campus wearing a pair of Dr. Martens lace-ups, the trademark yellow stitching bright against the boot’s smooth black leather, and the distinctive Dr. Martens AirWair tab hanging off the back.

Rabe started wearing Dr. Martens when she was 13, as a teenager in Seattle at the height of the nineties grunge scene because “all young girls at that age” were wearing them, but she soon found that the brand encompassed her individualistic style. “Once this sort of style takes hold of you, it never leaves,” she said. Rabe now owns eighteen pairs of Doc Martens, each one more unique but just as versatile as the last.

Dr. Martens boots, originally designed by a German army medic in collaboration with the Griggs Group Ltd., a family of established British shoemakers catering to the working class, are time-tested for durability. The boots, constructed of soft leather and and whose air-padded soles are made of the same rubber as airplane tires, are “near impossible to destroy” Rabe said. “That’s why I keep coming back. I know I’m getting a good product that is an investment for years to come,” she continued.

Mallory Shaw, another Mills student, remembers her first pair of Dr. Martens, black 8-hole AirWairs, which she purchased at fifteen. Shaw used them mostly as work boots at the Jiffy Lube she worked at then. “They were practical, comfortable, and withstood a lot of abuse,” Shaw explained. Since then, Shaw, who usually wears her Dr. Martens laced over jeans, has purchased other pairs throughout the years “because I knew the brand was reliable and I also enjoyed the utilitarian aesthetic.”

The utilitarian style is a hallmark trend this season, popping up everywhere on the Fall 2012 runways of designers like Jason Wu and Jen Kau and spawning an army of faux Martens wearing trendsetters. “Docs used to be reserved for the rebels, punks, and metal thrashers, but now they’ve transcended into mainstream culture,” Rabe said.

This assimilation of the Dr. Martens brand into the mainstream did not happen overnight. Shaw explained how the brand has evolved since  its reemergence during the grunge movement of the 1990s, “[the brand has] definitely become more flashy and high fashion in the past decade. There are more feminine styles of the boot now and it seems to me that people buy the boots to make a fashion statement rather than for a practical purpose,” Shaw said.

Dr. Martens’ transformation from a coveted icon of functionality and individuality to a fashion statement reflects the evolution of the counterculture. Shaw explained that what began as a movement against established social orders is now ironically embraced by them, “the original [Dr. Martens] culture was a counter movement against high fashion/mainstream commercialism [but] now the haute couture world has appropriated this iconic brand.”

As encapsulated by Deyn, edginess has become synonymous with fashion, rather than being a symbol of rebellion, and Dr. Martens has evolved along with it. In addition to collaborating with the fashionably rebellious Deyn, the brand has also collaborated with Ronnie Fieg, a rising footwear designer from Queens, NY, and with the Oregon-based Pendleton brand, a family-owned business inspired by Native American designs.

Dr. Martens’ collaborative choices show that even as it makes forays into mainstream fashion, it still retains a unique edge, partnering with designers and brands who represent the evolving counterculture, balancing functionality with fashion and keeping up with the decades of change which generations of Dr. Martens-wearing youth helped bring about.

Fifty two years and a hundred million pairs of boots since its founding, Dr. Martens has changed along with the times, balancing its working class slash counterculture heritage with fashion forward designs. At Mills, where students are as unique as they are fashionable, Dr. Martens is the perfect union.

This article won second place for Best Feature Story at the 2013 California College Media Association (CCMA) Awards.