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.


Dressed to Impress? Fashion and photographs from the early twentieth century

Karen Ullersperger, Reference Librarian, writes: 

Have you ever looked at old family photographs from before 1940 and wondered what they could tell you?  I found out that they can give a direct connection into the lives of the people portrayed in them through the clothes that people wore.

In an absolutely fascinating presentation at Chelsea Library in late October by the fashion expert and author Jayne Shrimpton, I learnt about history of fashion in ordinary family photographs.

Jayne Shrimpton (
Jayne Shrimpton (

In the nineteenth century photography was a cutting edge technology, but by the early twentieth century photography became more accessible with the advent of the Box Brownie camera. This meant that ordinary families could start to take their own photos and as a result pictures were more informal and can give us more information on the daily lives and fashion preference of our forebears. This eventually began to replace the more formal professional images often printed on postcards done in a studio setting.

Jayne showed us that by reading the fashions in a photograph correctly you can date images, but you can also study the history of fashion by looking at the images.

Fashion  a hundred years ago  was moving away  from the  formal and quite restrictive styles of the late Victorian era.The period between 1910-14  saw the development of a much more practical style with the introduction of shirts and ties for working women,  and the gradual raising of hemlines. That fashion staple the pencil skirt first appeared. It was during this time the lounge suit for men began to appear and moustaches became all the rage.

Women of all classes would dress for formal occasions, and we saw some great images of women in afternoon dress of linen or cotton, wearing extremely large hats and gloves even when taking tea with their neighbours outside the back door.

Children’s clothing began to change: some of the photos we were shown had little boys still dressed as girls until they were of an age to be “ breeched”, when they would start to wear trousers or even shorts. By 1914 girl’s dress was moving towards a more boyish or more practical style, maintaining their femininity by wearing a huge bow on the side of their heads.

Family, 1918(Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, 1918 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

The development of more active life styles led to the development of sportswear and also influenced the introduction of knitwear for a more casual look. Jayne showed us images of specific clothing for cycling, golf, and tennis and for the more wealthy and intrepid ski-ing and skating outfits

During World War One women’s garments became shorter, they began to cut their hair shorter and the overall look was much looser. Many young women undertook war work whether in factories or in the Women’s Land Army (est. 1917), where for the first time women wore breeches or jodphurs, covered by an overall coat to maintain modesty. Of course after the war it was straight back to wearing skirts.

When dating your family photographs Jayne advise looking not only the rise and fall of hemlines, but also what people are doing and what is in the background, for example the modes of transport, so if there is a car you can often date the image from the make and model.

In the 1920s people still “Dressed to Impress” but studio images were in decline and these would only be taken for special occasions such as weddings, christenings etc. In these images as Jayne explained, you can see a history of fashion through the generations with older women still wearing black floor length gowns and their daughters and granddaughters  in more contemporary clothes and hairstyles.

Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

By the late twenties and early thirties the photos showed another shift  for both men and women. This is particularly true of sport and leisure wear. During this  period  it became increasingly fashionable  to have a suntan and as a result women’s bathing costumes began to change from the modest and concealing fashions of the early 20’s  to the much skimpier versions with cutaway sections  by the 30’s, and other beachwear  clothes  such as  the introduction  of beach  pyjama’s.

Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

Men’s swimwear generated some discussion after the presentation  because  men used to swim in the nude but with the introduction of mixed bathing this was no longer acceptable. By late Victorian times they were wearing  trunks but with a vest section which everyone agreed was to hold the trunks up as they were of a knitted fabric . Most of us may have heard a story from our grandparents about their swimwear being so wet and heavy it fell down when they came out of the water!

During this time men’s began to wear informal styles, flannel trousers, sports jumpers, plus fours, and even on occasion shorts. Three piece suits became more relaxed, and had a boxier style; pinstripes were popular as was the Trilby hat.

Women’s and girl’s hemlines rose even further to knee length and their hair became shorter. Knitwear became an established part of dress and new fabrics such as jersey and rayon enabled more women to look stylish and modern and to keep up with the latest trends.

August 1937 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
August 1937 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

I went home after the talk and dug out some of the family photos and looked at them with renewed interest-  large hats,  hairstyles, hemlines, were all there and as a result of Jayne’s talk I  was able to  get a better idea of the dates.

If you are interested in fashion, or forthcoming fashion related events,  why not join our mailing list by e-mailing your name and contact details to Or, if you follow this blog, you will see regular features on our fashion and costume  collection, and you can look at photographic images from our archives in our local studies Library Time Machine blog.

With thanks to Jayne Shrimpton, who allowed us to use her images here. You can find these photos, and much more, in her book Family Photographs & How to Date Them. 

Shrimpton, Jayne.  Family Photographs & How to Date Them. (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2008) pp.123, 138, 161 and 163.