Marks & Spencer has been developing bras for almost 100 years. Stephanie Smith charts the history of this esstential best-seller with the help of Katie Cameron of the M&S Archive.
One in three women in the UK wears a Marks & Spencer bra. It’s often the first port of call for women to get fitted for their first bra, beginning a life-long bra buying habit as size and shape changes over the years.
This loyalty is thanks in no small part to the M&S bra-fitting staff who have the training and experience to find customers what they need and want, keeping up-to-date with new bra technology and developments to help us stay stylishly supported.
In many ways, the bra epitomises what Marks & Spencer is all about. Katie Cameron, archive and outreach officer at the M&S Archive at the University of Leeds (where many of M&S’s important historical bras and related promotional materials are kept) says: “It’s such an intimate item and it’s gone hand in hand with women going more into the workplace.”
History has it that the modern bra was invented in 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacob, ingeniously crafting a pair of silk handkerchiefs and some silk ribbons into a garment of comfort (although support must have been fairly minimal). And lo, the bra business was born. Katie says: “In Victorian era you had corsets so they didn’t think you needed a separate garment just to support your breasts because you were trussed up in all sorts of other things. Around the time of the First World War there was a lot of change going on for women and around what you were expected to wear.”
Marks & Spencer started selling the first bras in the UK in the 1920s.
“They were designed to slightly flatten the chest because by then, that was the fashion, the flapper look, the boyish look,” says Katie.
The early UK mass-produced bras were made in the East Midlands, where hosiery was already made. Katie says: “They were advertised to customers in quite an upfront way. They weren’t unmentionables and beautiful displays were made of slips and girdles and corsets and bras in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“At M&S it’s not until the 1940s that we start to see the influence of Hollywood.” The so-called sweater girls of the big screen, actresses Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield, and Jane Russell, made popular a cartoonish look characterised by a tiny waist and pointed breasts, and the women of Britain emulated the look (as did Madonna in the 1980s).
The 1960s brought in the influence of synthetic fibres such as Lycra and nylon, plus a move away from the more structured shape and the introduction of prints and patterns on lingerie. Katie says: “It was probably tied in with the sexual revolution and it being acknowledged that somebody is going to see your underwear.”
In 1965, M&S was the first retailer to introduce matching underwear and in 1969 Marks & Spencer adopted the international cup sizing originated in America.
The 1970s saw a return to a more natural look and in 1971 M&S launched a light bra made of two lace triangles, costing 73p. “It was unlined, aimed at a younger market and sold a million in its first year,” Katie says. The 1970s also saw the launch of changing rooms at M&S which meant women could try on for a much better fit.
“The ’80s was when we have the idea of selling a bra for every occasion, so you need a day bra, a seamless bra to wear under T-shirts, a deeply plunging glamour bra for evenings,” Katie says. The ’80s also saw the introduction of sports-style bras to cater for the aerobics trends – and the first thong came in at M&S in 1988.
The ’90s brought back more structured looks with push-up bras, and the 2000s saw post-surgery bras launched. Then the 2010s brought in a variety of sports bras and the Rosie collection, which has broken sales records since its launch in 2012. And so the bra continues to shape history.