The Marks & Spencer Archive in Leeds offers a great Yorkshire family fun day out with vintage fashion dressing up
Perhaps the thought of visiting a company archive does not strike as the most exciting prospect for a family fun day out, but then, this is no ordinary archive. This is the Marks & Spencer Archive, and it has a cinema, a play shop and a dressing-up corner where you can wear the same clothes that your gran or great-gran once wore.
What’s not to love? As Katie Cameron, M&S archive and outreach officer, points out, this wonderful facility, located since 2012 in the Michael Marks Building on campus at the University of Leeds, has just had a makeover, with visitors of all ages in mind.
“There is a lot more for people to do, a lot more for people to see,” she says. “It’s more interactive and family-friendly.
“We have a new cinema area, so visitors can come and see highlights from our film collection, which includes some fantastic cinema adverts from the early 1960s. This was when we were promoting these new wonder fabrics, Terylene and Bri-Nylon.”
Visitors can also dress up in the Design Studio. Katie says: “We have a mix of original vintage clothing and replicas for visitors to try on, strike a pose, take a selfie. It’s for adults and children. We want everybody to be able to come and get hands-on and have a go.
“We have a replica Penny Bazaar, so people can come along and have a go at being a shopkeeper. They can put on an apron, have a basket, play on the replica till, pick up some of the items on display there, have a go at shopping, and see what the old money felt like.”
The M&S Archive celebrates the role that M&S has played in people's lives since 1884, when the immigrant Michael Marks came to the north of England and opened a stall at Kirkgate Market in Leeds.
It was when Marks & Spencer began to appear on the very early high streets across the UK at the turn of the century that the name Penny Bazaar really came about, she says. “There were lots of items priced at a penny, lots of household essentials, haberdashery, that sort of thing, when most people were making their own clothes.
“They grew really quickly. Obviously, they started in Leeds, and spread around the West Riding, then across to Manchester, but then, about the start of the 20th century, we purchased a chain of shops in London and turned those into Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaars.”
The 1890s staff uniform featured here is in the dressing up area, and there is also a child’s version. Some of the clothes for trying on are originals from the archive’s handling collection, and trend to be designs that might have a few of, and some are also replicas.
Most of the M&S Archive fashion and clothing collection is made up of donations from members of the public. “It is incredible what people still find,” Katie says, adding that they do have to say no to some offers if they already have examples. “The things that are under-represented in the collection are early clothing, from the ‘20s and ‘30s,” she says. “We know that Marks & Spencer started selling men's and women's wear in 1926, but we have very few early pieces of St Michael clothing.”
The St Michael’s name was introduced as the M&S brand name in 1928 but, although the archive has some dressing gowns and stockings, it has little else. Menswear is also under-represented. “We are always on the lookout for unique pieces of menswear,” says Katie. “We did sell a pair of midnight blue velvet flares in 1969 for men, and if we ever found those, I would be very happy.”
There are more than 72,000 objects in the M&S Archive, most kept out of view although the visitor exhibits are changed regularly, so there is always something new to see. Katie says: “We have a strong room upstairs that is temperature and humidity-controlled – perfect archival storage conditions. At any one time, we can only have a small percentage of the archive on display, although researchers can book into the reading room to look at anything from the collection. We have a lot of students, but also people doing their own research, people who are interested in fashion design or graphic design, people who are doing their family history of the history of a town or architectural history.”
The M&S Archive is a very special place of learning, hosting school trips and providing hands-on, interactive, curriculum-linked workshops for all year groups, supporting a range of subject areas, including history, business, fashion,design and technology. The website hosts learning materials for schools and home educators. There is also an M&S Heritage Trail which takes a fascinating route through Leeds, from the first market stall at Kirkgate Market to the M&S Archive, passing the site of the first M&S store in Cross Arcade, and anyone interested can pick up a trail map from ther M&S heritage stall in the market, or download it from the Leeds City Council website.
Back in the archive, there are also staff magazines to see, giving an interesting insight into the life and times of those who have worked for the company. The St Michael News was a staff magazine published from the 1950s to the 1990s. “It gives loads of information about all the products that were introduced, suppliers, fabrics, all the different technologies, new stories opening and some great imagery,” Katie says.
There is a live show coming up, too, at the Carriageworks in Leeds. Called Dressed in Time – Dancing through the Decades, it tells the story of M&S through dance, music, film footage and images, with Dance Studio Leeds dancers wearing original and replica M&S clothing. Katie says: “You’ll get to learn about the fashion, but see it brought to life in a way that we have never done before.”
- The M&S Archive is open Monday-Friday, 10am to 4pm (closed bank holidays). The second Saturday of every month is Crafty Saturday, with free crafts and refreshments. May 13 is Family Discover and Do Day
- Saturday, May 20, 2-3pm, is the Dressed in Time show at the Carriageworks in Leeds, with sales to go to Leeds Baby Bank.
- Friday, June 23 – A talk on the history of lingerie at M&S.