Legend has it that the very first bra was invented and worn in 1910 by New York debutante Mary Phelps Jacob. One evening, as she dressed for yet another ball, she decided to break free of her cumbersome corset, so called for silk handkerchiefs and ribbons which she sewed together into a garment that would give a little lightweight, fuss-free support.
She patented her invention in 1914, and the bra industry was born – all from a simple desire for freedom and comfort.
Flash forward to Christmas 2021, and comfort, at least, is back at the top of the fashion agenda, as many of us continue to find that our homes multi-task as our haven, workplace and place of entertainment. For the time being, maybe forever, restrictive, structured workwear and most of our going-out wear remains at the back of the wardrobe.
“We have all become comfortable with wanting comfort,” says Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design at Marks & Spencer. “Comfort used to be something that really was not on designers’ and clothing companies’ agenda. It was something you moved into, perhaps in mid-life. Now every woman wants something comfortable.”
Marks & Spencer sold its first bra 95 years ago and, to mark the occasion, has launched the Archive lingerie collection, with designs and details inspired by the undergarments of the past, which Soozie and her team have been studying on visits to the Marks & Spencer Company Archive, at the University of Leeds.
This move to comfort is not new and not merely pandemic-induced, she says. She has noticed how relevant the styles of many archive pieces, especially bralets, are today. “It’s a natural silhouette, a big move away from the bodycon of the Nineties,” she says. “For the last couple of decades, we have been much more about the natural body, using lingerie to support, rather than sculpt and shape.”
There is a 1928 bra in the M&S archive that is not unlike the non-wired, deep-banded style in the 2021 Archive collection, which has three styles of bra and three styles of knicker in three colours (black, white and red), all available online.
Inclusivity is a key consideration, with five shades of neutral, knicker sizes in 6-28, and even bralets in sizes up to a G-cup. “The Fabulous range is for F and above, including non-wired, specifically constructed,” says Soozie. “Our aesthetic goal is to make those bras look as feminine and as lightweight as they can be, while also creating that reassuring support and comfort that every woman wants, whatever her size. But there are customers who love wearing wired bras, so we want to make sure that in each big range we have variety and choice.”
After a decade of lace dominating lingerie, embroidery is making a comeback, so the team studied previous embroidered collections (there is a little M&S logo embroidered into the Archive range bras).
In keeping with the ever-increasing focus on wellbeing, there is a new sleepwear range, with light bra tops (they have a crossover S-shape), shorts and leggings, all in M&S 360-degree stretch Flexifit fabric. “We had feedback from women that they wanted to feel more supported when they went to bed, and we know that some women wear bras, so we wanted to create a product that gently supported the bust, either as an alternative to a pyjama top or under,” adds Soozie.
Shapewear and strapless bras are coming back, as many customers remain hopeful about Christmas partying, although, says Soozie, the continuing trend for easy, comfortable dresses means that a slip might be the best choice. Also worn-to-be-seen lingerie is on the up, with camisoles and corsets or bodies a simple way to update your outfit.
“Looking forward to spring/summer catwalks next year, we are starting to see a return to a slightly more bodycon silhouette, slightly more waisted, maybe not quite as extreme as in the Eighties and Nineties,” she says.
M&S is also pioneering sustainability through its lingerie, and the mesh used for the embroidery is made from recycled materials.
“What we always are reminded of, when we visit the archive, is how important it is having the customer at the heart of everything we do,” says Soozie. “M&S was always looking to anticipate what women will want from their clothing and lingerie wardrobes by understanding how they were working, and what their lifestyles were like.
“When we look back to how innovative M&S has been throughout its lingerie history, it makes us feel proud that the innovation we have now will become part of M&S history.”
Soozie’s Christmas lingerie gift buying tips...
A beautiful lingerie set makes a fabulous gift. However, it’s important that you buy the right size so, if you can, do a bit of research behind the scenes. Find something that she has bought herself recently and loves wearing.
Consider sleepwear and loungewear and easy pieces like camisoles and French knickers – buy that in her dress size by checking a recent piece of clothing.
For luxury, take a look at the M&S Rosie range, which has silk, lace and pleated lingerie and “glasual” sleep and loungewear.