From the Sex Pistols to Naomi Campbell, the iconic boots created by Dr Marten are still stamping their unique mark

THERE are few items of footwear that have stood the test of time quite as stubbornly as Dr Martens.

• Dr Martens come in myriad colours, from plain black to tartan. Picture: Getty

Yet simultaneously, the iconic boots – which this month celebrate their 50th birthday – are the Marmite of the fashion world. You either love 'em or hate 'em; there's not much in between. Sturdy yet comfortable, plain and practical, they are, to their fans, boots that are as at home on the catwalk as they are in the mosh pit. To their detractors, they are some of the ugliest shoes ever made.

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More than 100 million pairs have been sold worldwide and today the company makes more than 3.2 million pairs every year. Back in the day, fans ranged from the Sex Pistols to Elton John. Current celebrity fans include Sienna Miller, Daisy Lowe and Avril Lavigne. They may have been a favourite with skinheads in the 1980s, but they have also been worn by supermodel Naomi Campbell in Vogue, and in recent years, London's It Girls have occasionally traded in their Jimmy Choos for Docs.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Dr Martens have created limited edition eight-eyelet and three-eyelet boots in cherry red, with each pair made in the original factory in Wollaston. In addition, to celebrate the company's long-running association with music subcultures such as the punk and goth scenes, they have produced videos and songs that are available to download for free at www.drmartens.com.

So why have DMs endured where other garments have been confined to the graveyard of embarrassing old photos? According to the company, the boots are "a blank canvas on which a generation can paint their personality … Dr Martens have always been different. No other brand has been mutated, customised, f***ed up and freaked out like DMs."

"They're a design classic," says architect Simon Chadwick from Glasgow, a long-standing fan of the famous footwear. "I wore them all the time as a student in the early Nineties; it was very much the student look. The industrial workwear aesthetic appealed, as did the fact that they were aggressive and antagonistic. I wore an 18-hole pair and had them in loads of colours. My favourites were the cherry red."

"I used to be a fan as a student, where a pair could be worn every day for four or five years before falling apart," adds Craig Naples from Edinburgh. "In the mid 1990s, they suddenly got less sturdy, and one pair I had bought just two weeks earlier disintegrated in the 1997 Glastonbury Festival mudbath. The last time I remember wearing them I was being refused entry to a dreadful nightclub in Cirencester, in about 1998, for having them on."

Created by Dr Klaus Maertens in 1960, the boots were manufactured in the UK and sold with factory workers, policemen and postmen in mind. But they were soon adopted by a number of subcultures, and have remained a classic ever since. In the 1970s and 1980s, wearers would colour-code their laces to reflect their political views, with white supremacists wearing white laces and anti-fascists wearing multi-coloured ones.

The fashion world adores them. Designers including Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Jasper Conran, and Yohji Yamamoto have all chosen to collaborate with the company, while stylists love nothing more than pairing them with 100,000 couture dresses for photo shoots. They have proven particularly popular in the past couple of years – possibly due to model Agyness Deyn's unofficial endorsement – with sales rising 30 per cent across Europe in the past year, and profits hitting 85 million over the 12-month period.

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier remains one of the biggest fans of DMs within the fashion world. He has collaborated with the firm and often sends his models down the runway wearing them: "Dr Martens, for me, bring to mind London and the punk movement," he has said.

"I was going all the time to London in the '70s; I loved the air of freedom that was there and that Dr Martens was part of that."

Gaultier used DMs for his autumn/winter 2009 show, saying that "I wanted a very masculine shoe like Dr Martens, but reworked in a very feminine way like fishnet tights".

So what next for DMs? By the dawn of the 21st century, they had all but shed their political associations and have now been completely integrated into the high-fashion world. Brit designer du jour Henry Holland adores his, and the brat pack of Brit Girls from Alexa Chung to Jamie Winstone have made them a staple. Fashionistas including Gareth Pugh proudly don 18-eyelet pairs up to their knees and even Lady Gaga wears them. Here's to another 50 years in fashion.

STEPS IN THE HISTORY OF THE DM

1945

A doctor in the German army, Klaus Maertens, marches his way into the footwear hall of fame after a skiing accident in the Bavarian Alps. Realising that his army supply boots were too uncomfortable for his healing ankle, he devises a shoe with an air-cushioned sole.

1947

Maertens fails to generate much interest in his new comfy soles until he meets old friend Dr Herbert Funck. He is impressed with Maertens's design, the pair go into business and the shoes become a hit in Germany – especially with housewives.

1959

Hungry for world domination, the pair look to manufacture the shoes worldwide and almost immediately British shoe manufacturer R Griggs & Co buys the patent rights to manufacture them in the UK, founding the "AirWair" label.

1960

Featuring yellow stitching, eight pairs of eyelets and coloured cherry red, the first series of Dr Martens boots hit the UK. The style was dubbed "1460", representing the date they were made (1 April, 1960) and in a low-key way, the boots begin to collect a following during the coming years.

1969

Mods as a collective disperse, and from them comes a subculture of skinheads, and with them, a uniform of turned-up jeans and sturdy Dr Martens.

1975

The Sex Pistols play their first gigs to a rebellious following and punk is born. The boots are released in a longer length and are often customised with paint, varnish (and, one suspects, vomit).

Elton John wears a specially-made pair of Dr Martens, 54in high with 12 pairs of eyelets, during the song Pinball Wizard in the film of The Who's rock opera Tommy, re-igniting the love of the boots for many Mods.

2003

As the recession takes hold, all UK production of the brand comes to an end. Production is moved to China and Thailand at the loss of 800 jobs.

2007

The brand is re-launched with rock offspring Daisy Lowe heading up the campaign. Dr Martens finds itself back on the map both in fashion terms and in the UK as the Cobbs Lane Factory in Wollaston is reopened at the same time.

2010

The iconic UK brand turns 50 and events to mark the anniversary will continue throughout the year, celebrating the boots that empowered rebellion and offered independence for those who dared – and continue to dare – lace them up.