Founded a century ago on Kirkgate Market, Jenessa Williams takes a look into M&S' archives
Marks & Spencer means something different to everyone. Whether you have a penchant for Percy Pigs, are addicted to their spirit of summer range or were frantically refreshing your browser as the Alexa Chung Archive Collection went live, it’s a staple of the British high street.
What is lesser known is that Marks & Spencer was founded over 100 years ago on our very own Kirkgate Market. Marching through the decades as an industry leader in staff welfare, garment technology and of course, those sexy food adverts, the history of M&S is about as rich as it’s chocolate pudding.
Tucked just behind Leeds University Business School, the Marks & Spencer archive celebrates just how far the brand has come, with over 70,000 pieces in it’s collection. Brought to Leeds in 2012, the exhibited pieces change regularly, covering changing fashions in food, clothing and homewares. Open to the public, the building is designed to share the heritage with as many people who care to see it.
We started selling clothing in 1926, so we have a few pieces from the 20s and 30s
“The decision was made to bring it to Leeds five years ago and make it really accessible, for as many people to use it as possible instead of it just being stored away” explains Katie Cameron, Archivist and Outreach Officer for the brand. “We had this purpose built building which is just fantastic; we have our perfectly engineered storage conditions upstairs in the archive and then we have this exhibition space and the reading room. Lots of students will come in and use that space to study and research.
“The collection of garments and all the marketing material that goes with it is just amazing. We started selling clothing in 1926, so we have a few pieces from the 20s and 30s, but it’s in the 40s that we start having a really good collection of stuff. And then of course we have prints and patterns from the technology side of things as well, but there’s also food science, business science, geography…all sorts of researchers and students use the collection.”
A trip round the archives certainly sparks off plenty of memories – from the legacy of St Michaels and the introduction of ‘exotic’ ready meals in the 1970s way back to the introduction of post-war synthetic fabrics in the 1950s, it seems that everybody has an M&S anecdote. The stimulation that comes from such a well-established brand is something that Katie and her team have been working hard on, running a series of outreach sessions for some of the more vulnerable members of our community.
We work with a lot of people with dementia, as the collection is perfect for reminiscence therapy
“We work with a lot of people with dementia, as the collection is perfect for reminiscence therapy,” says Katie. “Sometimes it can totally inspire a full memory or sometimes just the textures of a garment can jog things – just the enjoyment of looking or feeling an item and appreciating what it is. Seeing things actually unclick memory is just wonderful.”
Running such sessions in M&S’ very own home city can often inspire even more profound realisations. “Around here in Leeds, M&S had lots of suppliers, and there was one lady who said that she used to make something for M&S in a factory but couldn’t remember what it was. Then I gave her this Bra slip and she started feeling it and telling me that she used to make bras and she knew all sorts about the fabric and literally just that one moment brought it all back, it was really fascinating. It can be quite emotional,” smiles Katie.
Although the archive, it’s researchers and its outreach sessions all help spread the word, the team are keen to spread the history of M&S even further. Katie heralds the success of modern heritage collaborations such as the likes of Alexa Chung (“We pretty much let her loose in the archive and she looked at so much stuff in such detail, down to measuring out the spacing between flowers on a certain print and the designing process. It was really interesting to see how the team worked on tweaking things.”), but also the importance of presenting the M&S story in a way that is fun for casual fashion fans. Here lies Dressed In Time – bringing the Marks and Spencer story to stage this November.
Explaining the process, Katie acknowledges that Dressed In Time has been in the works for a while. “We do a series of events every year and always have a real mix, but we realised quite quickly that people really love seeing the garments on a real person rather than a mannequin. The show is really about bringing the M&S story to life – told through a dramatisation but allowing people to see the clothes on real people. People will discover the history of M&S but hopefully in a lighthearted way.”
With actors supplied from local community theatre groups, make-up from trainee MUA students and even the script courtesy of two Leeds University students, the show is set to be a very Yorkshire affair. “With the archive being in Leeds, people seem really proud of the fact that it grew here and the archive is back here, so I think telling the story in Leeds is really important as well” says Katie.
“Anything that gets more people aware of our heritage or using the archive or appreciating our collection has to be a good thing. Now seems like the perfect time to try something bigger – and I think it’s going to be really good.’