Wednesday 19 June 2019

The way we wore: how an 1800s market stall went on to become the behemoth that is Marks & Spencer

This November, Marks & Spencer celebrates 40 years trading in Ireland. To mark the milestone, Bairbre Power travelled to the M&S archive and museum in Leeds to chart the retailer's fashion history, and find out how an 1800s market stall went on to become a highstreet giant

The display cabinets in the M&S Company Archive and Museum has 70,000 items
The display cabinets in the M&S Company Archive and Museum has 70,000 items
Inside the company's research laboratory in 1957 where the first size survey entitled 'A Scientific Approach to Stocking Sizes' was conducted with 600 women. The results led to a range of 'super-fit tailored' nylons
Two styles of utility dresses from the 1940s
The M&S take on Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ with its nipped-in waist and fuller skirt
The shop on Dublin's Henry Street where a relative of Michael Marks opened a store
Twiggy modelled for M&S in 1967 and went on to have her own collaboration range
Immigrant pedlar Michael Marks, pictured, teamed up with Yorkshireman Tom Spencer , and an enduring retail brand was born
Immigrant pedlar Michael Marks teamed up with Yorkshireman Tom Spencer (pictured), and an enduring retail brand was born
Holly Willoughby at the launch of her Marks & Spencer Must-Haves, The Denim Edit at the Marks & Spencer at Westfield, White City, London
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Whether it's Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's sexy lingerie, the school uniforms, a regular supply of Percy Pig jellies or a melting middle chocolate pudding, M&S is a brand that has really got under our skin, and this year they're marking their 40th anniversary in Ireland.

If the original plan had worked out, we wouldn't have Marks & Spencer, or M&S as most people call it today. It would be known as Marspen.

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The name was the first attempt at branding, taking the first half of Michael Marks's name and the first half of Tom Spencer's surname. It didn't really take off, unlike the spiralling success of their business which has its origins in humble market stalls.

The British retailer only opened their doors here in 1979, choosing Dublin's Mary Street for their first branch. They followed up with two more stores in Grafton Street and on Cork's Merchant's Quay in 1988 and now have 18 stores countrywide. When Marks & Spencer opened here, many Irish customers were already more than familiar with the British brand, from shopping on holidays in England or presents being sent from relatives.

Inside the company's research laboratory in 1957 where the first size survey entitled 'A Scientific Approach to Stocking Sizes' was conducted with 600 women. The results led to a range of 'super-fit tailored' nylons
Inside the company's research laboratory in 1957 where the first size survey entitled 'A Scientific Approach to Stocking Sizes' was conducted with 600 women. The results led to a range of 'super-fit tailored' nylons

Visiting the company's purpose-built museum and archive in Leeds, located a short distance from Kirkgate market where it all began for immigrant pedlar Michael Marks with his penny bazaar in 1884, it is fascinating to observe the changes in how and what we consume. And it is hard not to feel a little emotional too.

Archivist Katharine Carter says, "There is a real connection that people make with vintage products and images because everybody has shopping memories."

Textbooks and films can shine a light on the golden years of fashion a century ago but there is nothing quite like seeing one of the replicas they have in the collection. One in particular, a set of 1930s beach pyjamas, is like a modern-day, loose jumpsuit - I love it. They also have the original garment but it turns out that it is too fragile to be handled by visitors.

There are also historic fashion and shopping items like the well-thumbed ration books and pretty utility dresses (two pictured right) which, during the war years, were all about basic design and shrewd use of fabrics.

The dresses have the CC41 label which stands for 'Civil Clothing 1941' - imagine, the ladies only got a new dress every two years.

"This is what wartime clothing looked like," Katharine explains as we walk around exhibition showcases themed on the decades.

Two styles of utility dresses from the 1940s
Two styles of utility dresses from the 1940s

"Customers then would make do and mend the things they wore at home, but when they were using their clothing ration, it was about things that felt really special and that would stand out. These dresses were produced under the set of regulations that restricted wastage so you couldn't use more than a set number of buttons and set piece of fabric."

This was the era, she explains, when split collars became popular. "You couldn't have anything like a big sailor collar anymore because that was just a waste of fabric. There were really strict rules but the M&S team, driven by Michael's son, Simon, was savvy and they focused on the colour and the print.

"Some of our suppliers were diverted to producing military uniforms and we had to find different suppliers during this period," says Katharine. "It was making the best of what we could so we did batches of lingerie like chemises and slips that were made using parachute silk offcuts."

Michael Marks had worked for a couple of years as a pedlar selling door-to-door before opening a market stall but there were a few things that he did differently to other traders, including putting up a sign that said 'Don't ask the price, it's a penny.' It was the first retail example of a fixed price point and when he wanted a partner to scale up his business, Yorkshire man Tom Spencer, who was good on logistics, bought a half share with his life's savings in 1894.

The museum documents the early years of the penny bazaar located just off the high street, windows piled high, conveying to customers that they could browse for free for entertainment.

In those early days, they sold everything for a penny, with a big offering on household products. They didn't sell clothing at this price but then their customers weren't buying clothing; they were making their own so they sold needles, buttons and thread.

In the 1920s they started to sell clothing and if you think of Downton Abbey-style, loose-fitting, dropped-waist dresses, these were easier to mass produce than the fitted corseted styles of the previous generation.

Moving into the 1950s, the popular dresses were based on Christian Dior's 'new look' silhouette and Marks & Spencer made this silhouette available in hundreds of different patterns and colours. The 1960s saw the emergence of the new youth culture and the arrival of the mini skirt. Twiggy (pictured far right) was 'the' model to have wearing your miniskirt and, decades later, she would go on to do her own fashion collaboration with M&S.

The arrival of the 1970s saw M&S become the first food retailer to bring a lot of popular restaurant dishes to chilled cabinets. "It was a big change for customers and, comparatively, convenience food was far more expensive then," says Katharine. "You just didn't pick it up on your way home, you splashed out on it when you had guests coming, and you made sure they knew. How people used convenience foods has changed a lot."

Before I leave the archive, I visit the climate-controlled section where the garment collection is housed in expert conditions. There are 2,200 items dating from the 1920s to the present day.

"We have knitted swimsuits from the 1930s, the very first M&S bra from 1926, wartime clothes and trends and key looks from each decade. We add in examples of M&S innovations and best-sellers, so if Meghan Markle has worn an M&S jumper, we will make sure it is captured in the M&S Collection. Anything that had a real moment and resonated with customers and the public will be added."

One aspect of this visit which struck me most forcibly was the service for older people and those with dementia. They put together packages of archive items and 'reminiscence resources' that older people and those with dementia can handle.

"There are things like panty girdles (pictured below) which to the uninitiated, were shapewear from the 1960s. They featured one of the first uses of lycra and are the kind of things that customers remember wearing."

Katharine notes that sometimes the memories are triggered by bold patterns: "Different eras in time have particular colour schemes that are very evocative, like the orange, browns and purples of the l970s. That is very evocative for a lot of our customers."

So too, it seems, is the opportunity to handle accessories like gloves and hats and handbags. Katharine explains that this is because "everyone would have worn those as a matter of course every time they left the house, whether it was popping to the shop for milk, or whatever. It was part of what was expected at the time."

A walk back in time along a heritage trail such as this is sometimes all that's needed to open a precious door to the past.

For more information, go to: marksintime.marksandspencer.com or email: company.archive@marks-and-spencer.com

For info on M&S in Ireland, go to marksandspencer.ie

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