By Lesley | December 22, 2010
I bought my first pair of boots when I was fourteen, at a shop called The Wild Pair in the Palm Beach Mall. I’d been reading Sassy magazine for a couple years at this point, and their fondness for a particular English boot manufacturer had always intrigued me. The style was cutting edge, at the time. Pairing heavy black boots with floral dresses looked utterly bizarre to the untrained eye, but I liked the result. It was tough and unexpected; it was discomfiting. It may come as a total non-surprise to some, but even then I was interested in the idea of dressing oneself to challenge convention, rather than to fit in.
Of course, being fourteen, the fabled Dr. Martens were far out of my financial reach. I did not have a hundred dollars of my own to spend on them, and I couldn’t even fathom asking a parent to do so. Who spends that kind of money on shoes? I wondered. And unfortunately, Docs were not yet popular enough to find cheap knockoff versions at Payless. I’ve always had a thing for shoes, though, and The Wild Pair was a favorite shop because they carried the slightly out-there styles I was most interested in. And they had a clearance wall.
It was there that I found them: black 10-eyelet steel-toed Dr. Martens in fine haircell leather. There was only one pair, and it was in my size. The price tag stickered to the sole of the left boot, Sharpied all over with deductions and sale prices, settled on twenty dollars as the boots’ current cost. I need to impress upon you, here, that Dr. Martens boots simply did not go on sale at the time — they were nearly impossible to find at all in the shoe stores of South Florida to which I had access. So while I would have preferred the classic smooth leather to the haircell texture, I leapt upon the opportunity that fate had so kindly laid in my path. This would mark only the first in a series of future experiences in which I would find a single pair of Docs in my size and on sale, but I could not have known that then. I had them. Finally. I had them.
I did not wear the floral dresses at fourteen, so I pulled on my docs with jeans and t-shirts and wore them every minute I could. I went to Catholic high school, which meant uniforms, which meant I did not wear them to school. While I wasn’t aware of any specific prohibition in the dress code, I knew wearing them would mean drawing a dangerous amount of attention — it would mean becoming a target. Nobody was wearing these boots, you understand. They were big black monsters that looked totally unlike the trends of the day. I was scared. So I wore them in my own time but never, ever to school.
Well, once, to school.
There were certain circumstances under which we were allowed to wear our own clothes to school. One of these circumstances was the day on which I was due to be photographed with the rest of the National Merit Semi-Finalists for the yearbook. Sure, we had to dress up, but still, a day in school uniform-free was a welcome change. I’d worn a floral dress in a mottled print of pinks and purples and blacks, and — brazenly — my Dr. Martens boots, which by this time were several years old and beat to hell, the steel toes covered in scuffs and scratches. Somehow, in my head, I thought this would be okay, because I was out of uniform. I might have suspected trouble brewing when my much-beloved Latin teacher laughed good-naturedly at my footwear and announced, “When I was a girl, one of our favorite insults was to say ‘Your mother wears combat boots!’” But she seemed unfazed once the initial surprise wore off, and I didn’t worry.
Around mid-morning, we gathered outside for our photograph. Mr. Heller — and that is his real name, which I am using because he was a rank asshole — was the assistant principal. He was present to oversee the photograph, which was evidently important business. Mr. Heller took one look at my boots and exclaimed with unrestrained horror and rage: “What is that?”
“…. Those are my boots.”
He was apoplectic. His face got redder and redder as he stared at my feet. Given his intense reaction, you would think my boots were unholy abominations made from the flesh of aborted fetuses, the soles stitched into place by Satan himself. Mr Heller hemmed and hawed for ages over whether I should be allowed to even be in the photograph — which, for the record, I wasn’t all that jazzed about anyway. It held up the whole process for far longer than a simple group picture should have required. Finally, after another faculty member suggested my National Merit status was not compromised by my choice of footwear, he bellowed for me to stand in the back. All the way in the back. He instructed the photographer: “Make sure you can’t see her shoes.” In the resulting yearbook photo, I am a levitating head behind my National Merit comrades.
Once the picture was done, Mr. Heller barked at me: “You need to go home and change.”
I was a good kid, and an outstanding student. I really never got into serious trouble, not at school and not elsewhere. So I was startled and a little scared by this instruction, even though Mr. Heller’s reaction seemed out of proportion. But as I walked through the parking lot to my car in the middle of the school day, I began to feel more anger than fear. The drive home took 30 to 40 minutes each way. This boot-fearing fuckwit was demanding I miss classes to change my damn shoes.
When I got home, my father was there, and was quite surprised to see me. “What are you doing home so early?” he inquired.
“Mr. Heller sent me home to change my shoes.”
My father was astonished. “He made you come home because of your shoes?”
Yes, it was. But it was a valuable first lesson in the power of style. I suddenly saw that there was a lot of potential force in my sartorial choices for fucking shit up.
I bought my second pair of Docs in Boston, immediately before beginning my freshman year at Boston University. They were a little different, even for Docs, and featured a soft weathered black leather and closely-set eyelets running nearly to the toes. I never owned a pair of the punk-uniform 1460 8-eyelet boots in black or cherry red; the boots I chose always had something unique about them. I did learn quickly from scene-knowledgeable friends that there was a proper way to lace one’s boots. My habit of leaving the top eyelet of my old steel-toes unlaced was anathema. Boots were to be laced horizontally, all the way to the top, the edges pulled completely closed over the tongue. This was a clear subcultural signifier — to the untrained eye they looked like little more than tightly-laced boots, but to a knowing observer they announced one’s allegiances and social/musical/political interests loud and clear. Lace color was an important factor for further communication, though colors and meanings have regional — and I’m sure international — variations. I learned that red laces signaled Nazi skinheads, so I avoided red-laces-wearers. White could mean “white power”, but may also be worn by SHARPs so one could not assume racism on this fact alone. Blue signaled straight edge. Yellow might label an anarchist, but then again, so might red. Wearing the black included laces was the safest course if you did not want to get too embroiled in politics. It wasn’t so much that there was ever a strict code of colors as there were vague correlations. An underground language of boots, with multitudes of divergent dialects. Though the precise meaning may be unclear, the overall expression of boot-wearing was an effort to fuck with the status quo.
In college I explored other Statement Boots beyond Docs. I had Undergounds, and Gripfasts, and Fluevogs, and New Rocks, and Swears. I had a lot of boots. In retrospect, I’m actually a little shocked at how many boots I had. In part, I invested so much in my boots because my shoe size gave me access to an incredible array of outrageous styles, while my clothing size led to a lot of closed doors when it came to outrageous clothing.
But there was more to it than that.
In my sophomore year of college I visited an old friend and assisted as she bought her first pair of Docs. At the store, she laced them up and stood, taking a few stiff, tenative steps. Then she said, with some degree of surprise, “I feel… powerful!” I’ve had this same conversation with uncountable fellow boot-aficionadi over my life, and the first time you put them on, the sensation is overwhelming. Heavy statement-making boots, like the famous Dr. Martens, very often do make us feel powerful; they make us feel strong, even a little invincible. While I enjoy a good totter in high heels on occasion, there is also something to be said for wearing shoes that announce you are not one to be fucked with, oh no. I am not someone you want to fuck with.
As the years passed, I eventually sold nearly all of my boots on eBay. I kept some for nostalgic reasons — a pair of bright green 10-eye steel-toed Docs, which I bought in Little Five Points whilst visiting an old friend in Atlanta when I was nineteen. The same pair in purple, for which I scoured eBay for years and finally procured in lightly-used condition. Another pair of purple Docs, pictured at the top of this post: 8-eyelets in rich suede, made by Na Na in the early nineties, back when Na Na was collaborating with Dr. Martens. I don’t much wear these old boots anymore — I keep them as portals to my past. In every scuff and crease there are stories, experiences, places, people. They were present at all of the important events of a certain stretch of my life. They are scrapbooks in shoe form.
I’ve recently bought a couple new pairs of Docs on sale; I miss the look, and they’re good for bad weather. One of my purchases was a pair of the classic 1460s in smooth black leather, once so unthinkably bizarre, even frightening, and now a style tradition worn by all sorts of people. Wearing them again over the past few weeks has reminded me of all the above — and of how I rarely feel so capable and so comfortable as when I am wearing my boots, and not just because of their physical characteristics, but because of what they represent to me, in my life. They represent my commitment to being ferociously and unapologetically myself.
So this is my nondenominational holiday gift to you, my beloved readers: I’m giving you boots.
Yes, the boots are a metaphor. But do hear me out.
I’m giving you these boots, and I want you to put them on and feel secure and strong and tough. I want you to wear them for the purposes of stomping the shit out of the pressure and anxiety you may feel for failing to look however people think you should look, or for failing to behave in whatever way people think you should behave. These boots are specially designed to destroy the sad feelings and self loathing brought on by a rude comment, and they resist the internalization of cultural messages about what is normal. These are boots that immunize you against taking shit from anyone; these are boots that turn you into someone who is not to be fucked with. These are your Boots of Total Fucking Badassery, and they give you +50 against body fascism and arbitrary beauty standards.
There will be a break-in period. It will take time, longer than you expect. You’re certainly going to blister. You may even bleed. And you’ll have to keep putting them back on, every day, over the blisters and raw skin, and soldier forward. But your sacrifice will have its reward, because eventually you’ll be wearing boots that fit you perfectly; they will never fit anyone else quite the same, because you will have shaped them to your unique needs. And you’ll wear them and you’ll be — ferociously, unapologetically — yourself, without worrying about what other people think of you, and without letting your fears or insecurities hold you back.
Happy holidays, my loves.