The M&S Archive and CHORD 2013

What does the Hodson Shop have in common with Marks and Spencer? “Not a vast amount beyond selling clothes” would have been my initial answer but that has changed somewhat since spending a day at the M&S Archive.

I was there for the CHORD 2013 conference on historical perspectives around retailing and the senses. The papers were fascinating, as ever. I particularly enjoyed Anneleen Arnout’s paper on the sensory aspects of the Galeries Saint-Hubert in 19th century Brussels and Ai Hisano’s history of cellophane in US food packaging. Ben Highmore’s take on Habitat’s “sensual orchestration” really got me thinking about shops as both retail and educational spaces – where people learn about design through their senses. There are clear parallels with museums within this, though this post isn’t the place for me to ramble on about those!

Instead, I want to tell you all about the M&S Archive and explain how it links with the Hodson Shop Project.

The archive contains approximately 70,000 items and is located within the Michael Marks building, University of Leeds. There’s an exhibition space on the ground floor, which is well worth a visit. The display cases contain items that tell the story of M&S over the decades – from the Penny Bazaars of the 1890s to the present day of Per Una and Percy Pigs. Researchers can also arrange access to the collections and there are excellent facilities for study.

'Eyecatching' early M&S shapewear underwear, 1960s

‘Eyecatching’ early M&S shapewear underwear, 1960s

There were some fabulous items on display. I couldn’t get over the floral print on this pair of early “Shapewear” pants (above)! The knitted swimwear from the 1920s also raised a few smiles. Yet it wasn’t all about clothing. In fact, garments only account for 1,700 items within the archive, with the rest being mainly documents relating to management, finance and product design and innovation.

Our guide, Katherine Carter explained to us that it is often a mad scramble to ensure that evidence and artefacts are collected and archived due to the fast pace of 21st century retail. Their collecting policy for clothing is to keep samples of ‘high volume sellers’ (this could be something as simple as a plain white t-shirt), garments seen on celebrities and public figures (e.g. Samantha Cameron’s polka dot dress) and garments incorporating significant innovations in textile technology.

We got to look at the ‘strong room’ where the collection is stored. I was impressed by the high-tech racking system they have in place and the pristine orderliness of the clothing collection. The garments may not have huge monetary worth and be distinctly ‘everyday’ but M&S clearly value their history.

The sophisticated racking and storage facilities at the M&S Archive

The sophisticated racking and storage facilities at the M&S Archive

During our tour of the exhibition space, Katherine explained how the company had evolved from a market stall in Leeds to the globally recognisable super-brand of today. It is strange to think that one of the earliest big sellers was sheet music that sold for one penny. The inflation of the 1920s made the ground breaking ‘everything’s a penny’ sales strategy impossible to maintain, leading the company to diversify and experiment with new products and branding. They introduced their first bra in 1926 and started to sell a range of simple, loose fitting garments (the loose fit was necessary due to the infancy of mass production techniques).

I was intrigued to hear that M&S technologists had worked with the government during WWII to develop what would become the CC41 (utility) scheme. It was striking to see a simple, yet elegant, utility dress next to the full and flouncy fifties floral frock. Katherine used the phrase ‘wonder fabrics’ when talking about the scientific breakthroughs of the fifties that kick started the period love affair with man-made fibres.

Items from the M&S Penny Bazaar

Items from the M&S Penny Bazaar

The 1960-1970s case was a delight. It was amusing to see how the company had attempted to keep up with the youthful freedom of the period – their first campaign with Twiggy was launched in 1968, whilst their Young St Michael range was endearingly innocent and ever-so slightly wide of the mark!

Ready meals and convenience foods were highlighted as the next major breakthrough. The not very appetisingly named ‘Boil in the Bag Ravioli’ was launched in 1971, with Indian ready meals and lasagnes following in 1972. Apparently, they were edible status symbols – with high price tags.

Fast-forwarding to 2009 and M&S celebrated the 150th anniversary of Michael Marks’ birth. The display featured limited edition archive-based garments. This anniversary marked the point when the design team began to search through the archives for creative inspiration.

There were also displays of staff uniforms from across the decades – from the early floor length black dresses worn with crisp white aprons, to the man-made fibre extravaganzas of the 1950s. A visitor assistant called Janet kindly talked me through these displays. She had worked for M&S since she was a teenager and even showed me a picture of her young self in a smart M&S uniform! She told me how her employers trained her in everything from grooming to dental hygiene. There is a clear sense of ‘family’ amongst M&S employees.

Janet also pointed me to a cabinet containing diaries belonging to Michael Marks and Tom Spencer for 1894  (the first year of the partnership). They detail Tom Spencer’s initial £300 investment in the company – humble items that capture a turning point in retail history.

M&S staff uniforms from the first half of the twentieth century

M&S staff uniforms from the first half of the twentieth century

The notebooks detailing Tom Spencer's initial £300 investment

The notebooks detailing Tom Spencer’s initial £300 investment

So what exactly do the Hodson Shop Collection and M&S archive have in common? My first thought was that they are both collections of stock and documentation of a single business. They also cover a similar time period.  In both cases, items are not spectacular, expensive or glamorous. The garments in the M&S collection are not displayed in relation to a specific wearer – making them, in a sense, ‘unworn’ (I would love to establish how many of the garments in their collection have been worn and how many have not).  On a more practical level, I noticed that some of the brands featured in earlier displays were the same as found in the Hodson Shop Collection, such as Dewhurst’s and St Margaret (the latter being the inspiration behind the St Michael brand name which was dropped in 2000).

Whilst there are some parallels, I am aware that the items in the M&S archive are there due to their association with a much-loved and renowned brand and business. Michael Marks and Tom Spencer have a lofty position in retail history whilst Edith and Flora Hodson are minor players. People visit the M&S exhibition because it resonates with them on a personal level and this resonance is widespread, across the country and generations.

Massive thanks to: the team at the M&S archive (especially Katherine and Janet), Laura Ugolini and Karin Dannehl from University of Wolverhampton who organised the CHORD conference and all of the speakers at the event.

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