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Inside Beat

From Dr. Martens to Chuck Taylors: Shoes are incredibly significant in early punk scenes

Fashion was highly influential in establishing the punk scene of the 70s and 80s, and Dr. Martens offer just one piece of how shoes impacted punk's existence.  – Photo by Astrowarinhari / Wikimedia

Shoes form a cultural identity of the people who wear them, and the formation of this secular identity is shown in spades through the 1980s punk scene that swept through London and North America.

The social and civil unrest of the 1970s allowed punk musicians to form an identity based on the disenfranchisement of being perceived as an “other” in mainstream society. This came in short, fast songs with simple melodies, that distilled the dissatisfaction and frustration lower-class American and British society dealt with.

Punk shows served as an outlet for troubled youths and fans of the punk scene, and the shoes they wore were critical in determining how these young people were able to express themselves while dancing and existing in the chaotic entropy that is a crowd.

Photos of concertgoers performing backflips off stage or moshing wildly in droves serve an encapsulation of their culture and what they value in an image. These shows served as an important emotional outlet for their audience, and the dancing at them came from the footwear they pioneered and popularized. 

Almost no boots carried as much weight in the 1980s punk scene in London more than Dr. Martens. Faith in the establishment and government programs were largely failing the people they hoped to protect, and Dr. Martens symbolized individuality in their comfort level and versatility. 

Dr. Martens was created when the founder Dr. Klaus Maertens, a 25-year-old soldier, suffered an ankle injury while skiing in the Bavarian Alps. He was unable to wear traditional combat boots, so he patented his own shoe and marketed them overseas as well as in London.

The boots symbolized the social upheaval of the 1960s, and British skinheads took a liking to them as they were effective at stomping. Dr. Martens soon became representative of the style of and championed by the British working class, becoming a symbol of anti-authoritarian sentiments toward the government due to their blue-collar origins and status as a symbol for British youth culture.

Viv Albertine, who was one of the first punk artists to wear Dr. Martens — and who also lived with the controversial Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols — wrote that Vicious “got me into so many fights and was the reason I started wearing Dr. Martens.” Endorsement from punk icons and the boots' rugged versatility made them a staple for punk shows in the 70s, and most concert photography from the time shows concertgoers in Dr. Martens. 

Next to the Dr. Martens, the George Cox brothel creeper served as a critical shoe in how punk artists were able to express themselves through dancing. Creepers are a style of shoe that has thick crepe soles and are made of suede. The sole is soft and malleable, which made it ideal for dancing and moving around comfortably.

While originally worn by British soldiers in World War II to combat sandy terrain and intense heat, designer George Harrison Cox pioneered the marketing of the shoe in 1949 to the British working class. Creepers gained notoriety through endorsements from fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols.

Together, Westwood and McLaren opened the fashion store, “Let It Rock” on 430 Kings Road in 1971. The storefront sold creepers and other clothing marketed toward British youth. The store later served as a central cultural centerpiece of punk fashion in the late '70s and became a kind of headquarters for the rock and punk community.

Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylors completed the trio of shoes skinheads and punks most frequently wore. Bands like The Ramones helped to popularize Chuck Taylors, and a myth circulated about the band alleging they exclusively only wore Converse shoes.

Tommy Ramone reflects on the Chuck Taylors' influence by writing, “in the 70s it was rebellious to wear sneakers outside of the gym. Doing that was anti-establishment.” This endorsement expanded its popularity significantly, as well as the influence of celebrities like Vicious donning them for Sex Pistols gigs.

Subcultures in music help differentiate timeless art from trends, and the shoes British punks wore in the 70s set them apart from other historical groups at the time. Chuck Taylors, Dr. Martens and brothel creepers represented the wide echelon of footwear worn by punks in the 70s and are key to understanding those involved in the punk scene's different ways of expressing themselves through dance and fashion. 

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