Dressed in Time - M&S archive fashion show at the University of Leeds

Oh, the 1950s skirts

Oh, the 1950s skirts - Credit: Archant

Vintage fans get a glimpse into Marks & Spencer’s fascinating fashion archive

1930s beach pyjamas

1930s beach pyjamas - Credit: Archant

Why did we ever cast aside beach pyjamas? They sound like the most relaxed item of clothing ever invented. Not only are you chilling by the sea with an ice cream in one hand (yes, there is a flake in it) and a novel in the other, but you’re in your PJs!

Sadly, it’s now frowned upon to wear your winceyette onesie for anything other than sleeping (and dropping your children off at the school gates) so we’ll have to make do with lusting after the glamorous 1930s beach pyjamas in the Marks & Spencer archive at the University of Leeds.

These and many other key fashion items from the company’s 70,000-piece collection were recently given a stylish airing at a special catwalk show, Dressed in Time, staged at the university’s Michael Marks Building, where the archive is permanently housed.

‘It’s an exciting opportunity to showcase some of the fashion gems that make up the collection and explore the fascinating history of fashion at M&S,’ said archive officer Katie Entwistle, who selected the pieces for the show. ‘The collection tells us more than just a history of the company; it gives us a social history of everyday life in Britain.’

The garments and accessories modelled on the catwalk were replica or vintage items from the archive’s handling collection, which was created for community outreach and engagement activities.

‘One of my favourite pieces is a fantastic 1970s blue striped women’s suit with flared trousers and wide lapels,’ said Katie. ‘We teamed it with a bright yellow blouse with dagger collar and platform shoes – all very typical of the 1970s.

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‘Another stand-out outfit is a Greta Garbo-style pink and purple pyjama suit popular in the 1930s.’

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence as to whether Greta ever wore her pyjama suit while building a sandcastle on Scarborough seafront. But we digress.

‘Where we needed to create a replica, we sourced authentic fabric and used original source material to ensure we got the look right,’ Katie explained. ‘For example, we recreated a 1930s dress which was featured in a window display photograph and we also replicated the iconic 1930s beach pyjamas advertised in a 1932 customer magazine.’

With so many fashion pieces to choose from, it must have been hellishly tricky to plump for just three per decade. In the end, it was decided that bestsellers and innovations – like 1950s’ nylon – were key.

‘It was quite tricky,’ said Katie, ‘given the amount of styles that were fashionable at each time. Some were obvious choices though, like the nylon dress, which represents the popularity of the ‘New Look’ with our customers in the mid-1950s.

‘As rationing ended and Britain emerged from austerity, full skirted dresses came to epitomise the look of the decade. And nylon was widely used as a hardwearing, easy-care fabric that was popular with our customers.’

If you’d like to rummage in the archive for yourself, you can visit the company’s permanent Marks in Time exhibition, which celebrates the role M&S has played in peoples’ lives since 1884 and charts the development of the iconic British retailer from its roots in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market to the present day.

The Michael Marks Building opened to the public in March 2012. Admission to the exhibition is free and there is a programme of community events throughout the year for people of all ages to participate in. To keep up-to-date, visit marksintime.marksandspencer.com

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