Updated: Jan 28, 2020
'So what is your research about then?' It's a question I sometimes dread being asked at parties, mostly because I have to very quickly sift through the layers of answer I could give, depending on the person and environment I'm working with. More often than not I settle on 'fashion', or 'women and fashion', or 'clothing and identity' and that's usually enough for someone who is just asking the question to be polite. But sometimes, I go full nerd:
'So I'm looking at the formation of female identity through clothing choices, specifically through the lens of Doc Martens. I'm asking the women who wear them why they choose to, what those shoes mean to them, what kind of an impact they're had on their life. It's really fascinating and wonderful and I love it.'
This was the answer that I gave to a bewildered looking man at an event I attended a few months ago. There was an awkward pause after my breathless ode to Docs...
'You girls and your shoes, eh?'
That was the response. I must have looked blank-faced at him, because there was a brief attempt at a backtrack, assuring me that it was interesting research and that it was amazing what you could get a PhD in these days. He needn't have bothered, really. I've had years of people questioning the validity of my research, and fashion studies in general has often suffered from being considered a bit of a non-subject. Because fashion is often considered to be frivolous (perhaps because it has been deemed a mostly female pursuit), it follows that the study of it would be frivolous as well. I remember going for a job interview when I lived in Glasgow and being asked about my undergraduate dissertation:
'It's about the use of shoes as a form of war memorial in museums', I replied, gleefully.
'Wow', the interviewer said. 'You've managed to find a way to make looking at shoes seem legit!'
And I have, too. But it doesn't just seem legit: it is legit. I'm backed up by an increasing amount of research in the field, and some of the OG fashion scholars (shout out to Valerie Steele) have dedicated a huge amount of time to looking at our relationship with shoes. Blockbuster exhibitions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Shoes: Pleasure and Pain' in 2015 have brought them into the fore of the public view, garnering huge crowd and excellent reviews This was a beautiful exhibition, full of stunning examples of rare, weird and beautiful footwear, but I couldn't help but feel that there was something missing in it: regular shoes.
I was in the midst of my post-graduate degree when I saw that exhibition, and Doc Martens were firmly on my mind. I did my post-graduate thesis on skinheads, subculture and Doc Martens, and I found it astonishing that there were no Doc Martens to be seen in 'Shoes: Pleasure and Pain'. In an exhibition entirely dedicated to shoes, put on by the leading museum of art and design in the UK (and one of the most famous in the world), there was no trace of one of the most iconic shoe brands to ever come out of Britain. So why is that? Why are we so bad at caring about every day things?
There's lots of potential answers, but I think that essentially it boils down to the fact that we really like looking at fancy stuff. As humans, we are drawn to the finest examples of things. They are status symbols that can show the world how wealthy, or worldly, or powerful we are, and in a world that uses our images as currency, those status symbols can be really important. But there is a different kind of image currency that runs under the surface of the mainstream, and that is the currency that I'm interested in. Sarah Thornton wrote a very important book called Club Cultures in which she describes the concept of 'subcultural capital'. In brief, this is the idea that within subcultures, there are unique cultural commodities and specific types of knowledge that can only be acquired by being a part of that subculture. The longer you are a member, and the more central and visible a member you are, the more subcultural capital that you have. This helps you to be recognised by people within your group, and differentiate you from people outside of your group.
Doc Martens are particularly interesting when viewed through this lens because they are an object that has subcultural capital. We now live in a world where you don't have to be a punk, or a skinhead, or a riot grrrl to wear Doc Martens: they are everyday wear for countless people all over the world. But they still seem to hold some of that subcultural coolness within them, and when you lace up a pair of Docs you can feel like an army of
rebels is walking beside you. In my research I have found that this feeling is particularly liberating for women: in fact, one of my participants for my PhD told me that wearing Doc Martens had changed her life. No longer tied to the flimsy shoes that women are often subconsciously encouraged to wear in order to seem light, small, and dainty, the power of stomping around in big boots can be transformative. I'll leave you with a brilliant story from Todd Lyon, published in the anthology Footnotes: On Shoes by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, in which she describes how buying her first pair of Docs empowered her:
'I myself resisted buying Doc Martens for years and years, because I wasn’t a squatter and didn’t own a skateboard. I thought I didn’t have enough piercings to pull them off. And anyway, I’m over forty and figured I’d need a fake ID to buy them. But then, in a funky little store, I spotted a pair that I couldn’t resist trying on. They were dead black, with shining red flames climbing up the toes. The shaved-headed she-clerk brought them to me in a box so big it could have held the hearts of a dozen enemies. The boots were heavy and smelled darkly of rubber and leather. I fit them over my size ten dogs, laced ‘em up, and planted myself in front of a mirror. Because the mirror was on the floor, tilted back in a worshipful pose, it made my feet look twice as big as my head. The mirror told me I was the most powerful and grounded woman in the land. In these indestructible boots I could ride motorcycles, jump over mountains, pound sidewalks, hike the tundra, kick anybody that got in my way. I could dance all night and, at the stroke of midnight, run down the stairs. No matter how long that staircase of how fast I ran down those steps, these shoes would stay on my feets, protecting and empowering me, happily ever after. I bought them with my credit card, and now I get the sense that, when I’m not looking, they make my high heels feel bad about themselves.'
Do you have any memories of buying your first pair of Docs? I'd love to hear them! Get in touch via the contact form, or follow me on Instagram @georgiamackayfashion and drop me a line there.