Upcoming talks on the History of Underwear

St Michael bras and girdles, 1966. Image The M&S Company Archive

Building on the research I did as part of my MA at London College of Fashion, I have a few exciting talks coming up in the autumn that will give me a chance to share my knowledge. On Saturday 17th October 2015, I will be presenting at the Costume Society‘s study day, held annually at London College of Fashion. Because the society was formed in 1965 and is currently celebrating its golden anniversary, this year’s theme is ‘Was it all Swinging? – revisiting the 60s’ and my talk will focus on Marks & Spencer underwear in the 1960s. Details on how to book will be available on the events section of the Costume Society’s website soon but, to give you an idea of what I’ll be covering, here’s my abstract:

By the 1960s Marks & Spencer was well known for excellent quality at reasonable prices, due to pioneering the ‘factory-to-shop’ system with its own brand and a close relationship to suppliers. Thanks to the textile lab at their Baker Street head office, M&S offered its customers a vast array of new synthetic fibres in their undergarments – including Lycra in the 60s – and technological developments were viewed as an important marketing tool. The ability of M&S to take design inspiration from America and turn it into practical affordable undergarments resulted in St Michael accounting for 15% of all the bras sold in the UK.

Based on research conducted at the M&S Company Archive in Leeds, this paper will look at how the nation’s favourite retailer coped with changes to underwear trends in the 1960s – particularly regarding youth style, bold prints, and the development of the ‘no-bra’ look. It will concentrate on new fabrics, affordable prices, how Marks & Spencer brought a touch of style to the everyday, and how it promoted these new styles to customers. The paper will draw on articles from copies of the in-house magazines St Michael News and Sparks which were published and distributed to staff during the 1960s.

On Saturday 31st October 2015, I will be speaking at the Association of Dress Historians Annual Conference at The Art Workers’ Guild in London, themed ‘Survival and Revival’. I’ll be speaking about how Wonderbra survived the ‘Bra Wars’ of 1994. Early bird tickets are on sale now via the ADH website, and this is my abstract:

The infamous Wonderbra advert from 1994
The infamous Wonderbra advert from 1994

First introduced in the 1930s, Canadian manufacturer Canadelle first registered Wonderbra as a trademark in 1955, going on to launch its first push-up plunge bra in 1963 which was produced under licence in the UK and US by Gossard. The 1992 surge in sales – due to the plunging necklines of fashionable outerwear of the time – led to renewed interest in the brand by Canadelle’s new owners, the Sara Lee Corporation, who decided not to renew their agreement with Gossard when it expired in order to keep the Wonderbra brand in-house with their Playtex division. Forced to let go of a well known and popular branded product, Gossard developed an extremely similar style, which it called the Ultrabra.

This paper will look at the history of the iconic Wonderbra push-up plunge bra, the style’s revival in the early 1990s and the brand’s survival of what the press labelled the ‘Battle of the Bras’, which played out on billboards and television screens across the UK in 1994. Using research conducted at the London College of Fashion Archives and the V&A’s Clothworker’s Centre, this paper will look at the survival, revival and lasting effects of a design classic.

I’m also very pleased to have been invited to give a lunch time talk about St Michael underwear in the 1950s and 60s on Friday 20th November 2015 at the M&S Archive in Leeds. As this archive played a big part in my dissertation research, and M&S clothing was an ongoing presence in my life when I was growing up, I am very excited about sharing what I’ve learned with a wider, non academic audience. There is a St Michael bra from the 50s and another from the 60s in the collection I donated to the LCF Archives, and it’s been fascinating to discover how innovative they were for their time. I’ll share more information on booking for this talk once I have the details.

UPDATE: You can now book for the Costume Society’s Study Day in October, and the Marks and Spencer Company Archive talk in November.

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