Dressed in Time - because this is not just a play. This is an M&S play

Marks & Spencer is taking to the stage in Bradford next weekend with Dressed in Time - a play which tells the story of British fashion and shopping. Stephanie Smith enjoys a sneak preview. Pictures by James Hardisty

The Dressed in Time play by the Marks & Spencer Archive, which will show in Bradford next week.

Great shopkeepers will tell you that retail is pure theatre, giving the customer experiences that engage, surprise, seduce. Marks & Spencer is taking this concept quite literally by staging a play called Dressed in Time featuring its history and its fashions. The story of M&S is in many ways the story of modern Britain and its people. Created by the M&S Company Archive, it tells how Michael Marks, a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, opened his first Penny Bazaar at Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884. Characters from M&S past times will wear original outfits on the journey, from glamorous 1930s leisure wear to rationed clothing creations during the Second World War, Swinging Sixties mini-skirts and 1970s flares.

Dressed in Time will play next Saturday at The Studio next to the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. It was a sell-out when it was first staged in Leeds in 2017. “We had people clamouring on the phone saying, are they going to do it again?” says Katie Cameron, archive and outreach officer at the M&S Archive. “M&S has a long history in Bradford, not only from the store point of view but suppliers – a lot of garments would have come from Bradford, historically. With the new store opening there a couple of years ago as well, it seems like the perfect place.

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“The play will tell the story of M&S in an entertaining way using original garments from our handling collection as well as some replica garments – for example, the 1930s garments are far too rare so we’ve had replicas made. We’ve got a nice mix of actors, some amateur actors, some students and some professional actors, most from the Bradford area.” Bradford College will assist with hair and make-up.

Katie Cameron with garments from the M&S Archives handling collection, to be worn in the Dressed in Time show. Clockwise from bottom left: 1980s dress, 1940s apron, 1930s beach pyjamas, replica 1950s white blouse, 1970s suit and shirt, 1960s mini dress Picture James Hardisty.

Katie adds: “We hold a really wide variety of events, whether that’s vintage fashion events or beer and wine tasting, which is always a popular one, and lunchtime talks on anything from the history of women at M&S to product design through the ages – some are held at the archive and some off-site.”

Marks & Spencer relocated its archive collections to the University of Leeds’s Michael Marks Building in March 2012, with the aim of making its resources accessible to as many people as possible, especially for educational and research purposes. The archive comprises more than 70,000 historic items. The Marks in Time permanent exhibition, which is free and open to the public on weekdays, features edited highlights from the M&S Archive clothing, toys, books, homeware, food packaging and company documents.

Katie says: “We have over 71,000 objects in the collection now, in the strongroom, and obviously we can only show a few of those objects at any one time, which is why we constantly rotate the exhibitions, picking up on key themes from M&S history, like staff welfare or textile technology or product development.”

Katie, 37, who is from Wensleydale and now lives in Wetherby, went to Liverpool John Moores University for her Art Masters degree followed by a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Leeds. “Vintage fashion is a real interest of mine personally and to be able to work with these 1950s and 1960s dresses every day, it’s just amazing,” she says. “It’s something that everybody can relate to and something that everybody is interested in, whether that’s the fashion, food or the old photographs of the stores.”

Katie with Margaret Bowyer and Betty Barwise as part of her outreach work.

Katie also looks after the archive’s outreach programme, which takes resources out into the community, including to schools and care homes, in particular helping people with dementia, using once familiar garments and objects to inspire conversations and memories.

“The collection is perfect for bringing back memories for older people,” Katie adds. “We also have memory boxes that we loan out across the country. There are four, two being general fashion – they have original garments and accessories from the 1940s until about the 1980s.

“One is based on childhood with original children’s clothes and toys from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the other one is a food-based memory box with packaging and leaflets.

“We get some really good feedback, with people being able to touch an original garment from the 1950s or 1960s.”

1970s trouser suit and shirt. Womens trouser suits first became popular in the mid-1960s with double breasted jackets, Nehru collars or epaulettes all featuring. By the 1970s lapels had spread and collars had lengthened. This blue suit with its flared trousers epitomises the look of the 70s, worn with a bright contrasting shirt with typical dagger collar, epitomises the look of the 1970s. Picture James Hardisty.

It can be fascinating to see long-forgottem stories begin to unfold along with the clothes, says Katie. In a Leeds care home, she recently met one elderly woman who knew that she once made clothes for M&S, but could not remember exactly what. “I passed round this 1950s bra slip, and as she started feeling it, she remembered that she used to make bras,” says Katie. “As soon as she remembered that, all this other stuff started coming out, so she remembered how she used to sew the label on here and that this stitch was used for this. It was amazing to see that this object unlocked that memory for her – it was there, it just needed a little trigger.”

The archive contains some of the earliest haberdashery objects from the Penny Bazaar and some of the earliest clothing M&S sold in the 1920s. “We’ve got an amazing pair of beach pyjamas from about 1930 – we’ve had a replica of those made which will be worn in the play,” adds Katie. “We are constantly collecting so we want somebody to be able to come to the archive in 100 years time and be able to see something from 2019.”

This includes archiving important innovations such as the recent easy-on and-off collection Marks that developed for children with disabilities. “The archive is used a lot by colleagues at head office,” says Katie, adding that M&S designers now take inspiration from old prints or how a fastening worked. “Small things that you wouldn’t even necessarily notice.”

Dressed in Time will be staged at The Studio, in Bradford, on Saturday, April 6 at 2pm. Tickets are £5 and include tea and cake after the performance. Booking is essential as places are limited. Visit bradford-theatres.co.uk/whats-on/ms-dressed-in -time

1960s Junior Miss Mini Dress. The 1960s saw us look more closely at the different types of customer shopping at M&S. During the 1950s we saw the rise of the teenager  younger people with more disposable income, and so we produced ranges aimed at those in their late teens/early 20s. This dress is a perfect example of the 'young look' of the era, with its bright print and simple design. The Junior Miss and Young St Michael ranges were really popular in the sixties. These ranges were aimed at the teenage market and in smaller sizes that the regular womenswear range. As we said in a 1967 staff magazine: This is not a jumped up child's department line, or a watered down version of the adult range. The St Michael Junior Miss styles are designed to suit the very special tastes and figures of the in-betweens. Picture James Hardisty.

The Marks in Time exhibition is open at the University of Leeds, 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

1980s Bold Print Dress. Bold expressions of colour played a very large part in the trends of the 1980s, and there were big changes in the shape and form of clothing. At M&S, designers such as Betty Jackson and Bruce Oldfield were enlisted as consultants to develop our classic womenswear ranges. Power dressing and Dallas inspired shoulder-pads featured heavily. Date: 15th March 2019. Picture James Hardisty.
1950s Skirt and Apron : Aprons were a bestseller in the 1950s. In fact many women would wear one apron for cleaning, then get changed into a different, brightly patterned apron when guests called in. The skirt is made from sailcloth, a crease-resisting, stain repellent cotton fabric introduced in 1957. Our customers wanted to replicate the New Look (as it became known) introduced by Christian Dior on the catwalks of Paris, so we produced full-skirted dresses and skirts in bright fabrics influenced by the French designer. Date: 15th March 2019. Picture James Hardisty
1930s Beach Pyjamas (a replica of which will be worn in the show). The 1930s saw the introduction of a much wider range of womenswear including glamorous nightwear, smart separates, party frocks and knitted swimming suits. Hemlines were long, evening wear was more daring, and Hollywood was a huge influence. Beach pyjamas, as they were known, first surfaced in the late 1920s, intended to be worn over swimsuits on the beach. Alongside Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer, Resort Wear became a third season in the 1930s, and featured garments specifically designed for holidays and trips to the coast. As well as beach pyjamas, we sold beach skirts, and even woollen beach shirts! Date: 15th March 2019. Picture James Hardisty.
1940s Pinafore Apron with Egyptian Print : The Second World War had a huge impact on fashion, and clothing was rationed as well as food. Clothing could only be bought with limited coupons, meaning you might only be able to afford one dress or one shirt a year. With that in mind, the government knew they needed to make sure that all rationed clothing was of a high quality. In the 1940s we were able to work with the government to develop a set of rules and regulations for garment manufacturers to ensure quality remained high. At the same time Austerity Measures were introduced meaning only a certain amount of fabric, thread, buttons and trimmings could be used on a garment. However, there were fewer restriction on dyes, so M&S was able to produce a range of Utility clothing that was not only functional and hardwearing but stylish. Picture James Hardisty.
Katie Cameron carries a 1960s mini dress through the Marks in Time Exhibition at the M&S Company Archive. The exhibition tells the story of 135 years of M&S, with highlights from the archives collection including garments, packaging, photographs and documents. James Hardisty.