How Doc Martens Became a Staple in Lesbian’s Closets

It’s not just a pair of shoes, but a part of Queer history

Alexis Zygan //  Contributor
Janelle Momotani // Illustrator

In the 1960s, Dr. Klaus created the infamous 1460 Doc Martens with air-cushioned soles. He showcased the prototype to a friend from university, and production began shortly after using surplus military supplies. Once released to the public, the clunky boot was adopted by older women who had a knack for sensible footwear. Doc Martens gained popularity in the 70s among members of counterculture circles, activists, punks and the queer community. A big factor in their adoption by those on the margins of society was their price tag, accessibility and availability in secondhand shops. 

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During the gay liberation movement, 2SLGBTQQIA+ people depended on secret signifiers to indicate their sexual orientation. Gay men had the hanky code, meanwhile, lesbians had workboots made of stiff leather. The instantly recognizable silhouette of Doc Martens allowed queer women to identify one another on the street at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law.

Butch women who were more likely to work nontraditional jobs for women at the time, in male-dominated fields such as skilled labour, wore Doc Martens. They would often wear them with a flannel and jeans, along with a carabiner attached to the belt loop. Not far off from what you’ll see a butch wearing on TikTok. A butch is a lesbian woman who defies the male gaze by adopting a genderless aesthetic that draws upon the subordination of emphasized femininity. Originally, the term butch referred to aggressive women, derived from the term butcher. Lesbians reclaimed the term in the 1950s. 

There’s a 1976 advert in Dyke, a quarterly magazine for queer women, with the headline, “which shoes fits you?.” It has an image of a wedged heel as Option A and a 10-eyelet Doc Martens boot as Option B. Underneath the two images is the caption, “If you choose Option B then Dyke Magazine may be for you.” Footwear dictates lesbian women’s movement in the world and for a long time, the stereotype was that dyke and butch lesbians wore heavy boots. In the article “Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and Fashion Imagery” by scholar Reina Lewis, she addresses how, regardless of what clothes a person wore as long as the shoes were chunky boots, they would be perceived as a lesbian.

Doc Martens continued to grow in popularity throughout the 90s when they became associated with the grunge movement. In 2021 they are widely worn by butches and baby dykes.

Doc Martens released a blog post on their website featuring interviews form 2SLGBTQQIA+ voices that explain why pride is still important in 2021. The article acknowledges how lesbians molded the shoes as a brand synonymous with rebellion, wearing them to gay marches and to hospitals where gay men lay in beds suffering from Aids. 

Prior to coming out, I owned a pair of Doc Martens. I saw the boots on my Tumblr feed and was immediately captivated by their edge and punk roots. In 2012, they were unavailable in Canada so I travelled South to purchase the boots from a Doc Martens flagship store in Seattle. I felt an immense sense of pride lacing up the boots to wear outside for the first time. They became a staple in my closet, all year round, until the rubber sole split. By that time, Doc Martens were labelled as one of the “five fall shoe styles for queer women” in a blog post by Awkward&Out, and I was openly queer. 

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