(Still) Daring To Be Different in Dr. Martens

Growing up in Brighton, England, I would see them strutting brazenly down the streets between the tattoo parlor, the art house cinema and the sleazy end of the Pier.

Dr. Martens shoes.

Not boots; those were the signifiers of skinheads and so-called Bovver Boys -- no, the Dr. Martens shoes were the ones I coveted.

They were everywhere. Dr. Martens on the feet of the emancipated ones, the art students from Liverpool and cineastes from Glasgow. Glorious lace-up shiny, sometimes purple, usually black, counter-culture statements with those confident chunky soles that meant you could run when something bad happened. And in Brighton, England, at the sleazy end of the Pier, something bad was always just about to happen.

But I was still at school and so forced to wear regulation brown monstrosities or, in the summer, the ill-fitting slip-on that was not quite a ballet shoe and certainly not a chic little Chanel pump. I lusted after the Dr. Martens three-eyelet 1461 brand black shoes with the sewn (never glued) Z welt-stitch attached to the air-cushioned sole.

I caught the train to London and went to Camden Market. I remember lurking outside the original Dr. Martens store and just staring longingly at the people-in-DMs who were free of school rules and having their own life and taking photographs in bed of their lovers on Sunday mornings.

My desire for Dr. Martens was, of course, a yearning to grow up; or, more accurately, to reach 19 and stay there forever.

When I got to London University, I was ready for my first pair. I bought them at Shellys in Covent Garden because I was too scared to buy anything in Camden Market. Shellys had two long glass displays of Dr. Martens and they had marginally friendlier shop assistants than elsewhere. I bought the shoes and put them on and didn't intend to take them off again, except to sleep.

After five minutes, they cut into my ankles and made them bleed. I was thrilled. It was an initiation rite. I staggered to the chemist on the corner and bought First Aid supplies. Then, I went to Vidal Sassoon and signed up to be a hair model at their Academy. Within days, my long, (badly streaked) blonde hair was hacked off into a sleek black Louise Brooks 1920s bob.

I got my nose pierced with a tiny blue (fake) diamond and bought wire-framed John Lennon glasses with blue lenses and a long black leather coat in homage to the cult movie Withnail & I.

London was intoxicating and I had the look. I belonged. My Dr. Martens told the world I was Different. I had no idea who I was, but by wearing those shoes, I knew that everything would be alright, eventually.

My best friend was doing work experience at ELLE UK. She snagged us invitations to the end of the decade party by Iain. R. Webb, then-Fashion Director for the magazine. We decided to be Ironic (because we didn't own anything expensive or chic or of-the-moment). We both wore little black dresses, long pearls twisted around our necks and left hanging down our backs -- and matching Dr. Marten black shoes. It was an exhilarating night. We sashayed past the paparazzi as if we owned the night. Some people took our picture. Others remarked on how brilliant we had been to match LBD, pearls and DMs. I wore nothing else to parties for a decade as a result.

Then, one Christmas, I went to visit my grandparents. I wore my Dr. Martens, of course. My grandfather and I were left in the living room after lunch looking through photographs. Suddenly, he glanced at my feet.

"Are those Dr. Martens?" he said, with some surprise.

I muttered "Yes," wondering how the hell he knew.

So much for discovering a counter culture. To me they had signified freedom, flair, disobedience and a refusal to play the girly-girl game. Apparently, Dr. Martens stood for something else. Good honest working-class men -- postmen, factory workers and the like -- had been wearing them since 1960. I was so confused. I thought I had found my tribe. But he had this glint in his eye. I realized he was rather proud of me for being original.

As the years went on, I kept buying new pairs of DMs. I moved from London to Los Angeles, and then to New York. I tried the boots, but I'm just not tall enough to carry them off. The black patent leather ones got me through chic fashion parties in Milan and Paris.

During my fancy suit jobs in NYC, I saw the disapproval in people's eyes when they reached my feet and, I'll admit it, I loved it. From time to time, I tried to quit my obsession with Dr. Martens. But I can't. I'm 45 years old (*coughs*) now. And every time I look at my feet, I get a tiny thrill, just like I did the first time. Dr. Martens made me belong. They made me part of something bigger than I am.

Over the years they've walked me through so many chapters, relationships and even a health crisis or two. I'll never forget my head bowed, unlacing them as I tried not to cry, while a nurse handed me a hospital gown. Then I walked down the corridor, in flimsy paper slippers, feeling utterly helpless, got onto a gurney, and waited to go in for a major surgery.

Almost two years ago, I decided to walk away from my corporate career back in Manhattan and start a new life on the Other Coast. There was something delightfully daring about emerging at LAX, big dark glasses on, jacket slung over my arm, rebelliously scuffed Dr. Martens on my feet.

The other day, I bumped into a friend with her teenage daughter.

"Are those Dr. Martens?" the teen girl said, looking up at my feet in astonishment.

I smiled back at her. "They sure are."

She exhaled in admiration. Apparently, Dr. Martens are still an indication of something else. And I'm still tickled pink to be part of whatever that is.