Monday, 31 January 2011

A Whole Lot Less: The Sporadic Relationship Between Dr. Martens and Skateboarding.


Aesthetic perfection: Matt Hensley in Hokus Pokus (1989).

Some footwear is unquestionably affiliated with skateboarding. No conversation about skate shoes would be complete, for instance, without the mention of Vans. But for some otherwise iconic shoe manufacturers, like Dr. Martens, the link is so tenuous as to be almost non-existent.

Who would ever think of skating in Docs (or any 'sensible' shoe for that matter)? With their thick soles and heels they'd be downright impractical, surely? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been tried on occasion. And believe me these instances are so rare and beautiful they're the stylistic equivalent of Haley's Comet shooting past a solar eclipse during summer solstice at Stonehenge.

The Trailblazer: Bill Danforth. (Photo via Motor Punk).

While some skaters (most notably the Santa Cruz team) had already been pictured wearing Docs off the board, the first person I heard of actually skating in Dr. Martens was Alva gnarler Bill Danforth. I think this was less a deliberate decision and more a case that he was active in both the skate and skinhead scenes and his dress occasionally crossed over. Nevertheless I was super young and it struck me as utterly badass. So badass, in fact, that I covered one of my school textbooks in a poster of the 16-holed hero, and was promptly made to remove it because "he looks like a thug."

The Trendsetter: Matt Hensley, merch table hippie jump, Vans Warped Tour, 2000. (Photo by Larry Ransom).

The whole skating in Docs thing did not make total sense until I saw Matt Hensley's seminal video part in H-Street's Hokus Pokus. As the opening chords to Sub Society's 'A Whole Lot Less' droned out, Matt gave the concept of 'sensible footwear' the boot with a super styled, slow-motion bench lipslide in low top Dr. Martens 1461s (see screen shot at top of post).

Suddenly everything fell into place. Right before my eyes that whole Calvin Klein advert/ 90210 preppie look that was emerging at the time (but always seemed a bit too jock-ish for skaters) was legitimised. Never had stonewashed 501s, Bouncing Soles and griptape looked so good together. It was a victory for fashion over function.

Captivated by the aesthetic perfection, I rewound that intro many times over the years until the tape was chewed and the image imprinted on my brain in all its lo-fi, fisheyed, VHS glory. It was just one shot (Hensley was better known for the Chukka boots, stripey tube socks and shorts thing) but it's part of the reason my brother and I have frequently worn cuffed jeans, chainwallets, white socks and 1461s ever since.

Matt Hensley went on to become a skating and folk-punk legend, more on account of his talent than his footwear, but the Hokus Pokus style was a timeless look he still nods to today. When I had to fly home from a tour with Matt's band, Flogging Molly, having accidentally left my skateboard behind, it was shipped back to me bearing the words "Cheers Cree$e, thinking about you a whole lot less, Matt H," in reference to the lyrics from his classic video part.


VIDEO: Jason Lee (yes the actor) in A Visual Sound (1994).

Despite the overwhelming visual cue provided by Hensley in Hokus Pocus, the Dr. Martens and skateboarding association failed to develop beyond that solitary lipslide. On the basis of impracticality, the skateboarding community probably wrote it off as a joke (which, perhaps, it initially was).

Nevertheless, Hensley's spark must have ignited a flame somewhere, a flame that was patiently kindled by the likes of Jason Lee and Ethan Fowler, reaching a modest blaze upon the release of Stereo's A Visual Sound in 1994. This was a film that redefined the boundaries for lo-fi creative expression in skate videos.


VIDEO: Ethan Fowler in A Visual Sound (1994).

Nestled among its many artistic innovations were two sartorial skits clearly born of the Hensley skate-prep aesthetic, yet fleshed out to include a broader range of 'sensible' (dumb) shoes for skating in, Dickies slacks, cardigans, plain white Ts, sideburns, vintage bicycles, period architecture, SF streets and a swingin' beatnik informality to the skating. 

There was, of course, an element of ironic playfulness, but the skits were substantial, bold and confident enough to be taken seriously. There was some profound Art Direction going on: Chris Pastras, I'd imagine. While the embellished aesthetic didn't change skateboarding overnight, mid 90s skate fashion embraced a watered down, functionalist approximation: plain white Ts, cuffed blue denim, white socks and Simple shoes for the fresh; button-down shirts, jacked-up slacks, white socks and plain black low-tops for the hesh. Sadly, however, no Docs.


VIDEO: Man About Town Starring Kilian Martin, A/W 2010.

'Sensible' shoes, it would seem, have not touched griptape in recent years in any noteworthy fashion aside from the periodic creeper runs of veteran punkers in Thrasher ads. That is until this winter when Man About Town magazine dropped this stunning promo to support their 'Winter Sun' issue.

The resurrection of freestyle skateboarding with a 50s twist (courtesy of Kilian Martin) is a stroke of genius from Art Director Atelier Franck Durand. The nostalgic 2010 take on clean-cut preppie staples is the vision of Stylist Diane Boulenger, who adroitly selected Church Shannons (almost imperceptibly similar to DM 1461s) and 90s Vision Street Wear hi-tops. 

I'd put money on this promo being massively inspired by the historic cues noted in this post. Not that I'm implying they're biting the style, rather that they've done their homework and tastefully refined the fleeting, lo-fi skate-prep aesthetic via the high production values of the fashion world. Indeed, if you listen carefully beneath Ricky Nelson's dulcet crooning you can almost hear the distorted opening guitar stabs of 'A Whole Lot Less' drawing you back to where it all began.

SOUNDTRACK: Sub Society – 'A Whole Lot Less.'

UPDATE:  Also see this post for more on Matt Hensley and the H-Street era.

Matt Hensley, handstand. Image via Gary Warnett. I became aware of Gary's blog after he gave this post a glowing review and a number of referrals. He's a more committed blogger than I am, and he writes insightful and funny posts about all manner of good stuff from an 'industry' perspective. You should definitely check him out.

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