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