Sunday, 12 June 2016

A visit to the Marks and Spencer archive

1930's lingerie advert. I would take them all!
I had a fabulous day out on Friday with my lovely friend. We met in Leeds and went to visit the Marks and Spencer archive which is located in the Michael Marks building at the University of Leeds. It is an interesting walk from the centre of Leeds through the university campus and it takes about 25 minutes. I found out about the archive a while ago but it has taken me this long to get organised for a visit. It was well worth the wait!

Marks and Spencer is one of the most recognised shops on the UK high street and even if the fashion doesn't always float your boat I bet you still go in for basics, underwear or food. My M&S staples are cardigans, tights, pyjamas and coronation chicken sandwiches!

1970's lingerie advert. I like the florals in the middle.
The archive exists both as the archive part with a reading room that you can book into to look at M&S documents and items and as an exhibition area looking at the progression of the company through the ages.

Most of the garments and items are behind glass so please excuse the strange lights and reflections in some of the photos. I think they still give a good idea of the fashions which is what I was after.

I bet most people in the UK have at least one pair of M&S knickers!
The first part of the exhibition goes through the history of the company - the detail of which can be found in this timeline. In brief, (underwear joke ha ha ha!), in 1884 an immigrant peddler Michael Marks opened his penny bazaar in Leeds market. He stopped selling more expensive items, concentrating on things like haberdashery and everything did indeed cost a penny. Tom Spencer became a partner in 1894 bringing admin skills and financial backing. By 1900 Marks and Spencer had 36 penny bazaars and 12 high street stores.

The penny pricing had to cease at the outbreak of the first world war as goods became harder to obtain and more expensive. The company survived the Depression by changing it's pricing and offering a smaller number of goods, concentrating on clothes and food. In the 1940's M&S helped the government with developing quality clothes with fewer details at lower prices, which helped to result in utility clothing.

An early M&S shop assistant's uniform and one on the right from the 1940's.
More staff uniforms, I remember the one on the right.
Logo details on the dress in the middle above.
1960's uniform, as seen on the left above.

In the 1950's and 1960's M&S concentrated on developing it's clothing, both in terms of fashions and materials. From the 1960's there was greater use of man made fabrics. The food department also changed, bringing chilled rather than frozen chickens to the housewives of the day. Convenience foods followed by 1973.

Now let's look at some fashion!

1920's vanity box
1920's kimono
These two items are made form beautiful floral fabrics. The next set of pictures are of 1940's fashions.

Look at those marvellous buttons!
I love this circus print! So much detail!

Moving on to the 1950's.

Yes please!!
Great dog scarf!
A television showing period M&S adverts.
Now for the 1960's.

Great print on that dress.
 The 1970's

The exhibition continues to cover the years up to the present day. I stopped taking photos after the 1970's display as by then I had covered all the eras whose fashions I was interested in. The exhibition at the archive isn't massive but it is well displayed and informative and really very interesting. We spent a lovely time there and really enjoyed ourselves. We then wandered back into Leeds for dinner at the M&S cafe as we felt it was only fitting! There were no coronation chicken sandwiches though!

I leave you with this one of me modelling a wartime ARP helmet.

And as it should look!


  1. What a great display! That 1960s uniform is such a strong example of how you can't tell how something will look until you try it on. It looks like a men's nightshirt on the mannequin but looks fabulous in the photo!

    1. Exactly! My friend and I had to look twice to be sure that it was the same uniform!

  2. I've want to go here too! It's a bit far for me unfortunately, but I hope to get there one day. M&S was my mum's favourite shop for years, especially during my childhood, so it always holds great sentimental value for me.
    I absolutely adore all of the lingerie and nightwear in that first image. I want it all!! I also love the 1940s apron. They should do an archive fashion collection for the shops, I'm sure us vintage gals would snap them up. xx

    1. If you make it up to Leeds one day it is definitely worth a visit. I'd happily accompany you! I have very fond childhood memories of M&S too. They have done an archive collection with Alexa Chung but it doesn't feature any of the things that I think we would choose if we were let loose in there!

  3. what a fabulous exhibit. I love the fact that is shows the clothes of ordinary people. I find that more interesting then seeing celebreties clothes to be honest

    1. I agree completely. Ordinary people's clothes give a much sounder understanding of the period and as an ordinary person myself I find it easier to imagine how I would have dressed at that time.

  4. This looks really cool! I've been to M&S in London and in Dublin, and I did really like it. Those chicken sandwiches were really tasty. :P Great exhibit, it must have been cool to see.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the chicken sandwiches!! It really was a great day out.

  5. How amazing is that circus print?! Thank you for this super fun tour. It stirred some nostalgia in me, as M&S was one of the first chains I tried to get to when I lived in Ireland. It was so famous, even over here in NA at the time, and it felt a little surreal the first time I stepped put in an M&S. I enjoyed the whole store, but the food section was my very favourite, especially since it had a few items (such as American style "cheese poofs") that I had a hard time finding elsewhere even in Dublin. These days though, many, many years on now, I bet the clothing would be the biggest draw for me.

    Have a fantastic week, sweet Kate,
    ♥ Jessica

    1. I know, that circus print is a stunner! I really liked hearing about your M&S memories. The clothing goes through highs and lows. You can stumble across perfect things and other times it can be a bit bleurgh! I love their cardigans though, I have the same one in many colours!

  6. Ooh I want to go here really badly, I love M&S so much! Oddly, I worked there and it was the worst job I ever had but these days I don't bother to shop anywhere else on the high street when I'm looking for new (non-charity shop) clothes - if they don't have what I need then I know I won't find it anywhere else ;)

    1. Weirdly, and with no evidence at all, I always imagined that they would be quite a good company to work for, Tut tut! I agree, for basics especially, I always start there.

  7. That looks fab - they also loan memory boxes to dementia groups as that can really help people with dementia.

    I agree with Cate, if they'd do a proper archive collection with accurate repros, I'd buy it.

    My main modern M&S purchases are bras, knickers, tights and food. So, the staples!

    1. I didn't know about the memory boxes, that is a great thing. Perhaps we all need to campaign for a proper archive collection, not a celebrity tweaked one! Good list of M&S staples!

    2. Yes, it can really help dementia patients if they see things that bring back memories, and M&S were such a midcentury staple that their archive products are great for recollections. (I remember Terry Pratchett saying the way he'd sometimes suddently remember things made him think his memories weren't being lost, they were just becoming inaccessible.)