Mini, Midi or Maxi: 1970s Fashion at M&S

Mini, Midi or Maxi: 1970s Fashion at M&S

Show Video

Hello and welcome to mini, midi or maxi 1970s fashion at M&S. My name's Katie and I'm part of the archive team. If you're watching the preview of this talk I'm here to answer any questions you might have in the chat on the right hand side, otherwise just email us at with any queries that you might have. The 1970s was the decade when the cyclical nature of fashion became more and more apparent. Fashions throughout the decade look back to Edwardian styles, 1950s youth culture, 1940s women's wear and 1920s film noir for just a few examples.

And these styles whether filtered down from haute couture or up from street style influenced fashion at Marks and Spencer. In this talk we'll explore trends in menswear and women's wear and take a look at some of the technological advances that made these styles possible. We'll start firstly with a quick introduction to the archive and to M&S in general. The M&S company archive is in Leeds and it celebrates the role that Marks and Spencer has played in people's lives for over 135 years. The collection contains over 71 000 items and visitors and researchers can explore the impact that M&S has had on the social history of Britain, from boardroom battles to staff welfare and from puddings to pants we've got it all in our purpose-built archive and museum. And the M&S story begins in 1884 when Michael Marks at the top left set up his first market stall Leeds, ten years later he went into partnership with Tom Spencer and M&S was born.

Our first market stall sold haberdashery and household essentials everything was priced at penny. The business soon expanded from market stalls onto the high street and the range of products increased. It wasn't until the 1920s that we started selling clothing. Artificial silk dresses and tennis shirts were popular products throughout the 1930s, then wartime restrictions affected supplies in the 1940s when we produced garments that adhered to strict regulations. The 1950s saw full skirts, net petticoats and printed Aprons and then by the 1960s we were selling ranges aimed at younger customers, working women and the smart man about town.

Now it's time to move into the 1970s. So we'll start with menswear. The 1970s is arguably the decade where we start to see something a little bit different for men at M&S.

We'd seen the peacock revolution, as it became known, beginning in the 1960s. Many men were feeling more confident to wear brighter colours and bolder prints and to move away from the standard 1950s uniform of shirt, tie, jumper and trousers. And this began to show its influence at M&S in the late 60s and into the 1970s. These images here are all from the early 1970s.

To tap into this peacock theme the Young St Michael range was introduced right at the start of the decade promising 'trendy clothes for all'. The collection was trialled in March 1970 in six stores and in October 1970 it was rolled out to 15 stores. The range included deep collared shirts with matching scarf ties, slim fitting knitwear and velvet look or jacquard flared trousers. Outerwear included midi trenches and formal tailored raincoats all paired with wet look shoes. These photos are taken from a marketing leaflet which was produced to promote the range, and for any classic car enthusiasts out there the photo shoot took place at Silverstone with a Formula Ford car in the background. According to a review of the range at the time the collection was more about body type than age.

The review said "Anyone with the right shape can wear clothes from this range, even if most men are not yet thought to be ready to buy properly coordinated sets of clothes". In the same review shirts were favorably described as being "near high fashion". This photo on the right shows customers trying on garments from the collection and of course this is before fitting rooms were introduced later in the decade. Young St Michael included a women's range too which we'll look at shortly. Of course the ranges aimed at younger customers were a relatively small section of menswear at M&S and the business continued to do what it did best - good quality garments in classic styles. Knitwear was updated to include contrasting trims and higher roll necks, and ties got a little wider and brighter.

These images are all taken from a 1970 photo shoot entitled 'Great Expectations'. The photos in this catalogue were all taken in locations linked to Charles Dickens and each photo has a small Victorian Pip-style urchin in the background. I think it would have been interesting to be in the meeting when this theme was pitched! The range of menswear sold in store increased with the establishment of our suit department in 1972. Suits were trialled in a small number of stores at first and by 1974 over a hundred stores had a dedicated suit department. Soon after launch the suits were featured in a newspaper fashion article alongside suits by Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. In the article the M&S suit was modeled by David Shimeld who was owner of the 'Che Guevara' boutique on Kensington High Street giving the suit the fashion seal of approval! And the success of the suit department was helped along by the employment of Italian designer Angelo Vitucci as a consultant in 1970.

Vitucci had worked for the luxury men's tailors Brioni until he set up his own business Angelo Roma in 1963, and here his clients included Roger Moore and Henry Fonda. Vittucci's ability to translate extremes of fashion into elegant tailoring made him a good fit for M&S. i wanted to share a short tv advert with you now. We began a series of tv adverts in the mid-1970s advertising everything from wine, toiletries to beef burgers and bread. This menswear advert was shown on television in Scotland and it's very to the point! You want to look good, but when you're buying trendy clothes today you want to know the good looks will last.

At Marks and Spencer we choose really good materials and we take the greatest care with every detail, right down to the last button. We make sure our men's clothes fit you and your pocket perfectly. That looks good. At £3.75 it's pretty good price too. The price is right because St Michael quality is so good.

Collars continued to spread and trousers got wider as the decade went on. This photo shoot was shot on board RRS Discovery in 1977 and the white suit at the top right preempted the release of Saturday Night Fever by a year. This chap is pulling off some very brave double denim looks! And a quick look at men's swimwear now. In the early 70s as with the core ranges we saw more prints and bold colors in men's trunks. Customers could coordinate their look with matching shirt and trunks, helping the transition from beach to bar no doubt! The examples on the right are garments that we hold in the archive collection.

They all date towards the end of the decade. The top pair stand out particularly, they're a recent addition to the archive collection and they feature a faux denim print. So we'll move on to women's wear now.

Costume historian Lou Taylor wrote that in the mainstream fashion market women were searching for elegance and wearability as a reaction against the excess of the late 1960s. As the decade began there was conflicting opinion on the ideal skirt length. In a 1970 article in our staff magazine we wrote "opinion concerning the length of women's skirts is divided. A quick glance down the street reveals every length from floor to mid thigh and for the first time in the history of womankind, there is no definite line where the skirts of all fashion conscious women must end". The article quoted designer Sonia Rykiel who said "women are more intelligent now they can please themselves, we are not all the same shape why should we wear the same length". You might recognize the illustration on the left - it's from one of our staff magazines advertising some of the the new ranges for 1970, but it's done by an illustrator called Jill Shipley who did lots of work for Jackie magazine throughout the 1970s.

The same year, 1970, Prudence Glynn a fashion journalist, attended an M&S fashion show and she wrote "Good news for the mini-minded: children, girls, matrons, grannies and budget conscious royalty, the whole amazing female spectrum which dresses at Marks and Spencer will be short-skirted this summer. An horizon of dimpled knees is clouded by only four midis". And here we can see examples of shorter length dresses and skirts from 1970. Yet by contrast the Autumn 1970 Young St Michael catalogue included only one mini skirt amongst the collection of dresses, skirts and trouser suits.

This is of course the partner range to the menswear collection that we looked at earlier. And so Hans Schneider, the Head of Womenwear Desig,n at the start of the decade remained rightly non-committal when asked about skirt lengths for 1971. He said "the style of the garment dictates which length it should be.

Policy in this respect should be fluid". Some predicted a move away from minis altogether. The shift in skirt length was so significant it was featured on News at 10! The five-minute slot in 1970 included designer Gina Fratini, manufacturers and M&S sales assistants discussing the new midi length as part of the Young St Michael launch. I'd like to share a clip of the feature now, I just need to apologize for the clock that appears on screen throughout. For months the girls have rummaged through the clothes racks undecided about the length of their skirts. Should they keep their minis as their boyfriends demand or surrender to the longer midi look? I asked designer Gina Fratini whether any doubt remained that every woman would soon be buying the midi.

No doubt at all, absolutely none. It's not a definite length, it can be anything from the knee you know to the floor up again, or crooked, or points, or anything just as long as it's below the knee. What do you think it's going to be like for girls who insist on wearing a mini next year? Well I don't think any girls will wear a mini next year unless it's just for beach wear or sports or, you know, you couldn't wander around London in the mini without feeling you've got to put your skirt on, you know you'd feel undressed. Perhaps the acid test of whether the midi really has spread from the King's Road to Britain's high streets came this morning when Marks and Spencer opened their doors on a new fashion range.

The store's better known for quality and value than exciting styles, but hanging on the rails this morning not just in London but in 15 branches from Glasgow to Southampton, were scores of skirts and dresses with the midi look. I asked supervisor Jenny Chalmer just how well the midis were selling. Business on the midis has been marvelous. I've sold out of the midi pinafore completely and I've sold out of a midi skirt. I should also run out this evening of a midi pinafore and trouser set. The section itself is moving over to the other side of the store this evening to make it bigger because the section here isn't big enough.

How is the sale of midis compared with minis? Much better, minis are hardly moving at all here. Midis have sold, the skirts, the jersey skirts, midi dresses and midi pinafores completely out. As far as your concerned there's no choice? As far as I'm concerned there's no choice at all, customers want midis as well. And of course following the midi was the maxi.

Longer length dresses throughout the decade were a good example of the cyclical fashions and the influence of previous decades on the fashions of the 70s. For example the 1972 television adaptation of War and Peace has been credited with an influx of full-length empire-line dresses appearing later that year. The Edwardian influence is also clear to see particularly in these 1974 images, with high necklines, pretty floral prints and lace detailing.

And these styles are also clearly influenced by the hippie movement of the 1960s, filtered down for the high street and for M&S customers into the 1970s. But not all our maxi styles were influenced by history. We saw our designers taking inspiration from haute couture and current trends.

We see prints inspired by the Italian designer Emilio Pucci, there's embellished kaftans influenced by disco style, and the folkloric, ethnic trend popularized by designers such as Zandra Rhodes. In fact. in 1978 an M&S knitted cotton top influenced by Zandra Rhodes inspired a whole Times article about designer-inspired everyday clothes. The writer describes the top "sleeve edges stretched into a rippling curve and overlocked in a contrast thread". However frustratingly there's no picture of the top in the article so I've been unable to track it down in the archive.

In her book 'Fashion for the People', Rachel Worth says "At this time the role of Marks and Spencer, and that of most retailers, was to pick up on the fashion trends rather than to instigate them, thus making them palatable to the customer who wanted to be fashionable without having to conform to the excesses of high fashion". These maxi styles were advertised as perfect dinner party wear. Dinner parties and entertaining at home were gaining in popularity during the 1970s, and as well as our food, beer and wine ranges expanding to reflect this, our collections of party wear or evening wear were growing. These advertising images from the mid 70s show people partying at home.

The women wear long skirts and dresses and the velvet blazer was always an option for the men. Of course it wasn't all about skirt lengths in the 1970s. Customers at M&S could choose from a range of trouser widths from straight leg, flared or the wide oxford pants shown here in yellow. And these were named after Oxford Bags, the extremely wide men's trousers that were popular in the 1920s and 30s. All these images are taken from a 1973 catalogue showing just part of the range of trousers available in one season. And we must give an honorable mention to this garment held in the archive collection.

After the popularity of siren suits in the 1940s jumpsuits, had fallen out of favour until the mid-1970s when journalists announced that they were now "in". One journalist reported that "now even Marks and Spencer is jumping on the bandwagon at £14.95 for the most wearable and flattering style", though it's not clear if the journalist was referring to this purple velour number! In women's swimwear we saw bolder prints and cut-out swimsuits as well as matching cover-ups. The arrival of low-cost package holidays in the 1970s helped sales of swimwear designed for sunbathing and beach lounging rather than solely swimming.

The use of lycra in our swimwear increased after it was used in swimwear at the 1972 Olympics. And now just a brief mention of lingerie in the 1970s. We saw a return to a more natural shape for lingerie, compared to previous decades both in terms of bras and knickers with little or no support, though that's not to say that we weren't still selling a lot of panty girdles! The lace bra that you can see here in the middle was introduced in 1971 and cost 73p, 18 months later we'd sold a million.

It became the best-selling bra in Britain in 1972. It was our first unlined bra and it was described as "less bra doing the same job as before" and it was seen as a prototype for a new style of bra aimed at a younger market. And now I'd like to show you another short tv advert this one is from the mid 1970s and promoted our lingerie ranges. At Marks and Spencer choose a St Michael brown panty girdle corselette from a wide range made with lycra for comfort and control. We'll measure you so that when you move it stretches with you, like a second skin to give you confident fit, confident feeling. Comfort and confidence built on the right foundations and lycra stretch for St Michael quality, Marks and Spencer value.

The women's wear design department underwent a lot of change during the 1970s. Hans Schneider had been Head of Design since the late 1940s, he retired and was replaced by Brian Godbold. Prior to a Godbold taking over most designs were produced in-house. The design process in 1975 at least started with the season's fabric.

Lengths of fabric were ordered by selectors and technologists, the design team decided which fabrics would form the basis of the new range, then they worked out the basic silhouettes and any additional features the garment might have - trims or braid for example. The designs would then be sent to suppliers and they'd be made up. Samples would be made up for approval by the design department. However when Brian Godbold took over he wanted to "raise the level of design competence" within the department.

He later said "we became less concerned with designing in detail on behalf of our suppliers and more concerned with fashion prediction, colour and product coordinations, resulting in a more concentrated team of high calibre designers". So the actual designing of the garments shifted from the design department to our suppliers. The design department worked more on providing direction to these suppliers and general themes that they would like to see.

These photographs show the design department at work. The photograph on the left features our women's wear consultant Michael Donnellan. Donnellan was previously head of Lachasse and he'd set up his own business, Michael of Carlos place in the 1950s. He was later described as the "Balenciaga of London".

He worked with M&S through the 1960s and 1970s advising on our womenswear ranges. In 1976 M&S was the subject of a half hour documentary by Thames TV. The program featured behind the scenes footage of stores, Head Office, food developments and clothing design teams. As much as I would love to show you the whole documentary I've just taken a couple of clips.

This one shows the women's wear designers at work. This sort of effect for pockets these are just rough sketches which they've prepared, if we like the idea we can get them to build it up a bit more. And then the nautical look. The baker street headquarters is a sort of mecca for people in the rag trade. Manufacturers are forever coming in and out trying to interest M&S executives in their latest wares. Okay I think what we'll do is get this lot on garments and come back to you when we've done that.

Some nice colors there. Yes these tone on tone colours I think are very good. Yes they're good earthy colours which should give us a direction for next year. Now what about the sleeves because that's the main thing I think they'll look a bit wide don't you? Yes well that would help to do the £2.99 price point because in fact if they came down slimmer like about, say two centimeters, yeah what do you think? All the way up please let's make a decision, here now look this is a little different different to normal admittedly.

Well you know, but really it's a nice print I think, it's a different shape. Let's agree yes or no, you know we've lengthened it now we think it's good value £2.99. I don't know myself.

Ever since M&S set up a textile testing laboratory in the 1930s, textile technology has been an important part of product development, not only for ensuring garment quality remains high but for developing new techniques and processes to make garments that were easy to care for and easy to wear. A couple of examples from the 1970s - so in 1972 we developed a process to mass produce machine washable lambswool and shetland wool. The wool was given a shrink-proof coating and this particular coating also had the benefit of being much more hard-wearing, it allowed brighter dyes to be used and was much more colour-fast. Then in 1973 we worked with manufacturers to perfect the transfer printing process.

This allowed printing on fully-fashioned knitwear. The printing allowed a wide range of patterned garments to go on sale, and also helped the business react more quickly to changing fashion trends. The same year we worked on embroidery motifs that didn't require embroidery.

We'd seen motifs like these become popular at the start of the decade, manufacturers supplied ready-made motifs which needed to be sewn on. We worked on developing motifs with nylon threads running through them and when pressed under heat the nylon melts welding the motif onto the garment, making production much easier and quicker. Many of the designs for these embroidered motifs were overseen by a lady called Margaret Nash. Margaret worked for the design team through the late 60s and into the early 70s, and we now have a large collection of her work here at the archive. It's really great to be able to see the design process as well as the technological innovations that made her work possible.

Our textile testing laboratories were featured in the 1976 documentary that we looked at a clip from earlier, so here's another short clip showing a few of the menacing looking machines used in our labs..! All M&S people are passionate consumers of their own products and rely on their families as sounding boards, especially of new lines. Many test their wares as they work by wearing them, even the commissioners will argue the merits of their yoghurt and their fruitcake and the secretaries of their blouses and their bras. Well in this room we do physical tests on textiles - test light, strength, either tensile strength or busting strength, abrasion resistance or the one in the corner a snagging test to see just how soft will rough up if it catches on a rough surface. The results of the test that we get in here eventually are written in the specifications for the fabric and these specifications become part of the contract which a manufacturer said when he said he's going to produce cloth for us. This machine is for testing rainwear under natural rain conditions, to see how long it takes for water to penetrate the garment or the fabric.

The actual rain itself is made is to Met Office data as you see there's hypodermic needles with drops forming on them which then fall onto a nylon mesh cone and a split up into rain-like drops. The collection of 1970s fashion held at the Archive provides a rich source for M&S designers today. Most recently menswear designers looked at 1970s knitwear to inspire garments in the Originals range. The collection launched in 2021 included archive-inspired garments created with a focus on sustainability.

And then in 2016 when we celebrated 90 years of lingerie, designers visited the Archive to explore the collection of vintage underwear. They selected the lace bra that I mentioned earlier and redesigned it for the customer of 2016. The new bra was available in three colors with matching knickers.

The non-wired version which is shown here in the middle actually differed very little from the original 1970s bestseller. And back in 2016 this 1970 burgundy plastic mac from the archive collection and the striking red version from a catalogue was the inspiration for one of the pieces in the Archive by Alexa collection. Alexa Chung chose her favorite pieces from the archive and reimagined them for the customer of today. The photo of the red mac is taken from the Charles Dickens themed catalogue I mentioned earlier, definitely a strong choice of theme! And that brings us to the end of our talk today. I hope you've enjoyed going back to the 1970s. If you have any further questions do get in touch at

or you can find us on twitter and instagram where we are @mandsheritage

2022-01-30 11:52

Show Video

Other news