Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer

Reference librarians Karen and Gillian write:

Recently, Rachel Worth, Professor of Dress and Fashion at Arts University Bournemouth, delivered a presentation on the history of Marks & Spencer at Chelsea Library. This post is based on what we learnt about the high street giant from Rachel’s fascinating and insightful lecture.

From very humble beginnings in a Penny Bazaar stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884, Michael Marks and – from  a partnership that began in 1894 – Thomas Spencer together built a company that would become Britain’ s biggest clothing retailer.

From the archives
From the archives

Today, Marks & Spencer is a company synonymous with quality, reliability and customer care, but do we associate it with fashion?

Well – yes! Marks & Spencer was at the forefront of bringing accessible and fashionable clothing to the masses, at the same time being a pioneer in using new textiles, displays techniques and marketing methods – including the use of “supermodels” before the word was ever invented.

In the 1890s most working class people made their own clothes, and initially the market stall sold haberdashery (dressmaking materials). The sales slogan of “Don’t Ask The Price, It’s A Penny” summed up the business model. By the outbreak of World War One the company had expanded considerably and had diversified into homewares, but clothing remained at the heart of the business.

Marks & Spencer revolutionised how we bought clothes and also how clothes were sold, focusing on ready-to-wear affordable goods; high quality, well designed and fashionable clothing. In the 1920s M&S was ahead of most other retailers in its marketing and retailing methods setting an upper price limit on clothes. It also accepted the return of unwanted items, giving a full cash refund if the receipt was shown, no matter how long ago the product was purchased, which was unusual for the time.

 

Picture from M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert with three women and two young girls
M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert © M&S Company Archive
M&S Fashion advertorial with a series of women in M&S clothes
M&S colour supplement in ‘Woman’ magazine, May 1958

It entered into long term relationships with British manufacturers, and sold clothes of the “St Michael” brand, introduced in 1928.  As the company dealt directly with manufacturers it was able to keep prices low and to maintain input in the design and quality of clothes sold in its stores. It was one of the first companies to introduce standardisation in sizing.  It also aimed to cater for all members of the family; children’s clothing and ready-to-wear suits being particularly popular.

M&S Fashion 4
A Marks and Spencer’s window display of St Michael Terylene skirts, Swansea store, 1957, taken from Fashion for the People, by Rachel Worth

Pioneering methods included having its own textile laboratory to enable the testing of fabrics and dyes before mass production, and the use of rainmaking machines to test water repellent fabrics. New synthetic textiles were particularly popular between the 1950s and 1970s. These included Tricell which was first used in 1957. Another synthetic fibre called Courtelle was first launched, nationally, by Marks & Spencer during  the 60s as was Crimplene and Terylene.

These fabrics were easy to wash, often drip dry, easy iron and held their colour or shape. Terylene, for instance, meant the fashionable 50’s woman could have a permanently pleated non-iron skirt. The introduction of Lycra in  the 1980s revolutionised hosiery,  swimwear and underwear because of its elastic properties.

M&S hosiery advert
Lycra hosiery, The M&S Magazine, Autumn/Winter 1988, taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

 

M&S Fashion 6
St Michael News, July 1953 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

Marks and Spencer has always been design conscious, and no more so than in the 1950s when designs were Paris-inspired with an interpretation of the New Look being all the rage. Colour coordinated clothing and jersey knitwear enabled the fashionable women on a budget to change her look , updating key pieces when on a tight budget.

Picture of a large window display unit with knitwear suspended from the top
Window display of St Michael Orlon knitwear, 1950s

Display and marketing was always a key element of the presentation of M&S fashion ranges.  Before the days of mass advertising it was the window display that dominated; these were eye catching and innovative (see above). Early advertising concentrated on the opening of new stores, but post-war the company began to employ models in print media using the well know faces of the day, including Twiggy in the 1960s:

Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth
Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

The heyday of this form of mass marketing was the 1990s when M&S began to use supermodels such as Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer.  Here is Vogue’s front cover of July 1996 with Amber Valletta wearing a Marks & Spencer shirt, which we found in our archives at Chelsea Library:

Vogue, July 1996
Vogue, July 1996


If fashion  is a concept based around our attitudes to  clothing then Marks and Spencer is part of its fabric: with its  high  quality/ good value ethos,  innovative and strong relationships with customers,  and its technological innovations  it  led the way in fashion for the masses.  Our thanks to Rachel for  revealing some of the secrets to the success of  the company over the last hundred years.

Rachel’s book, Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer is available to read at Chelsea Reference library.

Fashion and Flowers in Chelsea

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian writes…

We noticed some new trends on the King’s Road over the past week… garden inspired shop-fronts, beautiful floral dresses and new visitors to Chelsea Library, who are exploring the area whilst visiting the Chelsea Flower Show.  Surrounded by so much floral beauty and enthusiasm, we’ve also caught the flower fever and been inspired to explore fashion and flowers in our Costume & Fashion collection.

The Chelsea Flower show in the 1920s:

From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley
Taken from The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley

And we love this image of the flower show in 1918, showing off the fashions of the time:

From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley
From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley

In our Vogue magazine archives we found lots of garden-inspired illustrations, fashions and adverts from the May and June issues in the 1920s.  In May 1926, as well as checking out the flower show, here is what you mind find shopping along Sloane Street:

Vogue, May 1926 edition
Vogue, May 1926 edition

And from the same month, an illustration of a fashionable garden of the time:

Vogue, May 1926 Ed.
Vogue, May 1926 ed.

And when it rains…

Stormproof... taken from Vogue May 1926 Ed.
Stormproof… taken from Vogue May 1926 ed.

We liked this arty picture from Vogue May 1924, with the shadows of trees in the background, entitled Flowered crepe is a medium of the mode:

Taken from the Vogue archives, 1924
Taken from the Vogue archives, 1924

In June 1929, a model poses in a rock garden:

The description for this beautiful dress also sounds like a delicious dessert.
The description for this beautiful dress also sounds like a rather delicious dessert.

In fact, everywhere we looked in the May and June Vogue issues we found flowers and gardens.  Here is Twiggy in May 1967 and on her dress is a “Pyramid Myriad of Flowers, triangles of tiny multi colored ones….”:

Twiggy from the May 1967 edition of Vogue
Twiggy from the May 1967 edition of Vogue

In the 60s Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell had a chic Chelsea boutique Quorum, and we found this great floral design of theirs from 1968:

From Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1960s
From Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1960s

Fast forward again to May 1988, a budding affair:

A fashion shoot from May 1988
A fashion shoot from May 1988

 

 

We hope you enjoyed  taking a quick browse through the flowers and fashions at Chelsea Library.  There is lots more to discover in the library and online, in the Berg Fashion Library Online, which you can access for free with your library card.

Fashion on display- new images at Chelsea Library

Reference Librarian, Gillian Nunns, writes:

Chelsea Reference Library had a bit of space on the wall above our costume collection, and what better way to fill it than with some beautiful images from our fashion and costume periodicals?

Chelsea Fashion Collection & our new fashion images
Chelsea Fashion Collection & our new fashion images

Staff at the library were asked to pick their favourite images from a shortlist, and choosing was tricky! The images, depicting costume spanning the Regency and Victorian eras, were all picked from our own magazine archives of La Belle Assemblee, The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine and Les Modes Parisiennes. We like the fact that the winners show how the shapes and styles of fashionable dress changed over 5 decades:

La Belle Assemblee November 1808
La Belle Assemblee November 1808

Classical Greece influenced dress was at the height of fashion in 1808, featuring a high empire waist line and long straight skirts. Woman dampened the muslin draperies so that they clung to their figure!

 

La Belle Assemblee November 1812
La Belle Assemblee November 1812

This evening dress from 1812 features a great turban – indoor caps for daywear weren’t that fashionable in this era but essential for evening wear and turbans were a very popular choice.

 

La Belle Assemblee 1828
La Belle Assemblee 1828

By 1928 a very different silhouette was in fashion –with so called leg-o’-mutton sleeves and skirts with tiny waists and wide bases. Check out the elaborate trimmings and hats!

 

Les Modes Parisiennes 1852
Les Modes Parisiennes 1852

By the 1850’s ladies skirts were so domed that they had to be supported by hoped cages called crinolines and lots of petticoats.

 

 English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872
English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872

And then by the 1870’s the fashion was to have a flat front of the skirt, with lots of fabric pushed to the back… called a bustle. This image features a popular style called the Dolly Varden (Charles Dickens fans will get the reference) – where you have an overskirt which is shorter at the front with the sides and back bunched up.

Here are a few other images that were on the shortlist but didn’t make the final cut. We hope you like our choices!

Les Modes Parisiennes 1852
Les Modes Parisiennes 1852
English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872
English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872
La Belle Assemblee 1828.
La Belle Assemblee 1828.

 

The colours of these prints are really vibrant even after all these years, but we also loved seeing some amazing pictures of the actual fabrics in one of the books that we have in our collection – Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston published by Victoria & Albert Museum:

Promenade Dress made of silk plush. British 1855-57
Promenade Dress made of silk plush. British 1855-57
Woman’s dress of woven silk with applied plated trimming, lined with linen. British, about 1805.
Woman’s dress of woven silk with applied plated trimming, lined with linen. British, about 1805.
Day dress (sleeve detail) of block printed cotton.  British, 1825-30 (page 194)
Day dress (sleeve detail) of block printed cotton. British, 1825-30 (page 194)
Evening Dress made of machine-made silk bobbin net, hand embroidered.  British, about 1810
Evening Dress made of machine-made silk bobbin net, hand embroidered. British, about 1810
Women’s shoes made of silk and linen satin lined with kid and linen with a flat leather sole.  British, 1830s-40
Women’s shoes made of silk and linen satin lined with kid and linen with a flat leather sole. British, 1830s-40
Bustle made of horsehair woven with linen  British, 1870-75
Bustle made of horsehair woven with linen, British, 1870-75

To find out a bit about costume in this era we also read History of Women’s Costume by Marion Sichel. Come along to Chelsea Library to find lots more about the world of Costume and Fashion, or log on to Berg Online with your library card!