As part of the research for my MA dissertation, I headed to Leeds earlier this year to visit the Marks & Spencer Company Archive. Housed in the Michael Marks Building on the University of Leeds campus, the archive contains more than 70,000 items from the company’s history, including clothing, packaging and company documentation. On my first trip, I went to see the temporary exhibition Bravo M&S!, which focused on many of the bras that Marks and Spencer has made and sold since 1926, and also took a look at the permanent display which showcases some of the best items from the collection. That afternoon, I spent quite a bit of time looking through old copies of the staff magazine, St Michael News. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of a retailer that remains a huge part of the British high street, and also brought back a lot of memories of shopping trips there with my mum and sister when I was younger. For years I thought that it was usual to buy every item of clothing that you might want and then try it on at home, returning what didn’t fit, as my mother always took advantage of the excellent M&S refund policy!
When I returned to London, I looked through the online catalogue to see if there was anything else in the collection that would be relevant to my research, and I ended up going back for a couple of days to study a number of garments in more detail to help kick start my dissertation research. The assistant archivist also looked out a staff training video for me, dating from 1985, and this turned out to be extremely interesting indeed. Not only did it tell me how M&S staff fitted and offered advice on bra buying at the time, it also showed an example of their range and gave a glimpse of a typical underwear department. Things have changed a lot since then!
If you have any interest in the history of Marks & Spencer or the types of products they sell, the M&S Company Archive is definitely worth a visit. I really enjoyed my time in Leeds and will definitely be going back if I get a chance to expand on my research. For now, you’ll just have to bear with me while I type it all up.