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When I visited London in 1996, I was a junior in college with no sense of style. Trying to enter a neighborhood pub in South Croydon one night with a friend, I was denied entrance because my hiking shoes did not meet the pub’s dress code. “Sorry, mate, no trainers,” the bouncer firmly explained. Suddenly thrust into a culture where my choice of shoes limited my access to socializing, I resolved to remedy the situation.

The next day my friend and I journeyed to the expansive Doctor Martens store in Covent Garden. I was disappointed to learn that in four stories of shoes there was not a single pair that would fit my size 15 US (14 UK) feet. After some research I learned of a specialty store hidden in the back of Piccadilly Circus that only sold shoes on the extreme ends of the sizing spectrum. Eventually we found the place, and in short order I had bought a beautiful pair of the classic Dr. Marten 3-eyelet shoes in a color called oxblood for 45 pounds. They were spectacular, a rich, ruddy red. Simple and functional, but with more panache than any pair of shoes I had ever worn.

That night I returned to the same pub, dressed much as before but with my new shoes. The bouncer waved me in. From that moment my presence in England and on the European continent changed. I felt more a part of my surroundings. Strangers on trains asked me if I was Belgian. I started meeting and going out with French women. I danced in clubs, explored winding side streets of new cities, wandered through markets, attended parties, met fascinating people, and walked amongst the wealthy and famous at the 50th Cannes film festival in my Doctors. They molded to my feet and I molded to them. I received compliments everywhere I wore them. I polished them with a religious fervor and took pride in my unique shoes. When the leather finally cracked and I could no longer wear them, I was saddened to learn that the company no longer made those shoes in my size. An era had passed. I am on my third pair of Dr. Martens.  While just as comfortable as my first, the quiet black pair of today doesn’t have the same luster as the originals.

Nicholas Bratton, Seattle, WA

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When I moved to Alaska, there was a pair of rubber boots waiting for me. My boyfriend at the time, who had moved up six weeks before while I stayed back to finish my job, had bought them, and they were standing up on the tiny kitchen table when I entered the cabin we first lived in. These weren’t any rubber boots, but a special brand that almost everyone in the small coastal town I’d moved to seemed to own: comfortable, durable, up to the knee…the kind commercial fishermen wore. My boyfriend, who had spent a few summers in Alaska, had encouraged me not to buy a lot of clothes and gear before our move; he said that with certain things, you wanted to spend a little time in Alaska to find out the best brand and kind. These boots—called XTraTufs—were obviously the kind everyone wore, and they made me feel like a kid. I could wade through shallow streams and splash through puddles. I could traipse across the beach without worrying about getting wet. I wore them for clamming and while setting a gill net for salmon across the beach at low tide. They were the key to exploring my new home and beginning to feel like I could fit in. And they felt like a crucial tool for the kind of modern, self-reliant lifestyle I was striving for. Now, a decade later, while accomplishing practical tasks such as getting the vegetable beds ready for another short, cool growing season, I long for things that are glamorous. I long for opportunities to wear the types of shoes I never get to here: sexy heels, strappy sandals.

Miranda Weiss, Homer, Alaska

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