Let’s play guess the retailer. Here’s a few clues:
A company able to trace it's origins to 1884. A company with an archive collection containing over 71,000 items, dating from 1884 to present day, from written, photographic and digital records, to clothing, food packaging and merchandise. A company that has a fashion archive dating back to 1903. A company that can tell the story of the changing high street, of consumer trends, how we dressed then and how we dress now.
Have you got it? Of course it’s Marks and Spencer and their quite astounding M&S Company Archive.
Like so many, I’ve grown up with 'good ol’' M&S from newborn, party outfits, school uniforms, to my first bra, hosiery, shapewear, knitwear, work suits to an array of coats, dresses, blouses and skirts and of course to my drawer of knickers and as a mother myself, the M&S circle continues.
Flicking through my wardrobe M&S is omnipresent - Collection, Autograph, Limited and Per Una alongside my treasured vintage St Michael preloved finds. It’s this mash-up,1980s happily rubbing shoulder pads alongside this seasons pieces, that gives me the styling edge I’m looking for.
When M&S invited me to visit the centre to view the museum (open to the public) and their private archive collection - usually only accessible to the archivists; the M&S design teams and collaborative projects with famous names such as Alexa Chung (Archive By Alexa) and Twiggy - I had to take a moment, to steady myself. Not only was this a very special invitation, but I really wanted to call my late mum (an M&S shopper all her life) and tell her. I can’t think of many other brands that has that emotional tug.
The centre sits on the University Campus, Leeds, a buzz of students, archivists, touring visitors and Head Office staff all using the site as a place of learning, training and discovery. The day I visited a team was looking over beauty packaging styles; students from the London College of Fashion were in situ and very often journalists call in requesting archive pieces for reference. Far more than a simple museum, this place brings the past and present together.
The ground floor tour itself starts with the history of the Penny Bazaar, Kirkgate Market, Leeds. Founded by Michael Marks in 1884, it sold small household goods and haberdashery items. His slogan was simple and to the point 'Don't ask the price, it’s a penny’. In 1894 he went into partnership with Thomas Spencer and the business was born.
From there you can explore window displays from the 1900s - current day. Highlights for me included the impact WW2 rationing had on clothing and how ‘make do and mend’ was a fact of life. In 1941 ‘Making of Civilian Clothing (Restriction Orders)’ meant the use of only 5 buttons, 2 pockets and 4 metres of stitching for every produced item. Clothes rationing coupons allowed for one new dress per year. ONE.
Jumping into the 1950s seems almost another world, with a dress inspired by Dior’s New Look ‘Corolle’ collection. Bright, rosy prints, nipped in waists and hem lines rising. Hop over to the 1960s and nylon landed, as has machine washable instructions and static! The 1970s window made me reflective, this was my youth staring back at me, flared jeans, tank tops, long collars and cookery books edited by one Mary Berry. 1980s onwards reminded me of growing up, suit jackets, lycra and shapewear. Thank you shapewear, thank you. It’s very likely that on my next visit there will be something from my 2000 wardrobe and so it goes on.…
On the first floor, away from the public eye is the archive itself. A hanger-like, temperature controlled, windowless space dedicated to the sensitive work of archiving clothing and accessories dating back to 1903. A library of fashion spreading out as far into the dark as my eyes could see. Silk items folded between acid-free paper, hat and glove boxes piled up high, row after row of garments zipped up in white suit carriers, individually marked and each as important as its neighbour.
Kath, my M&S archivist tour guide, had kindly pre-selected some key pieces for me to view. A row of trench coats including a navy gabardine coat from 1950; a pair of 1980s high waisted red culottes; a pastel war-time blouse; an A-line stone washed denim skirt…. all vintage but all so very NOW. And that’s what stood out, how fashion is so inspired by the past and that well made pieces and great tailoring lasts.
I couldn't leave without sharing my own mini St Michael archive, 5 pieces (2 dresses, a grey wool coat, a leather skirt and a pair of culottes). As an archivist Kath was as interested in the labels (the birth certificate of the garment) as she was in the item. Dating them all from the early to late 1980s, my radar is clearly tuned to this decade. I always planned to offer the archive one of my pieces and Kath was delighted to select my earliest piece, a late '79, early '80's dress: a purple and pink cap sleeve tee shirt attached to a simple purple knee length cotton skirt. 38 years old, much worn, much loved and now the latest member of the M&S Archive.
What stands out from my visit isn't actually the fashion itself, but the Company's dedication to preserving their M&S history, scrap that - OUR history. Sharing their story: how they serve the customer; the wellbeing of their staff and their role within the community. Recording moments of change: wartime restrictions; the change in body shape; the introduction of synthetic fabrics. How easy it would have been for ‘management’ to focus only on trading figures and to see the archive as something in the past. Far from it. This is a place that reminds me why I adore the high street and why I need M&S in my world. Book a tour, smile at how we used to dress and soak up this ever-changing world.