Leeds & West Yorkshire

M&S archive images chart the history of the bra

Women posing for a lingerie fashion show in 1947 Image copyright M&S Archive
Image caption Victoria's Secret it ain't: A photo of a lingerie fashion show in 1947

Marks and Spencer has raided its archives to chart the history of bras.

Garments from the 1920s and decades-old adverts were among the items pulled from the retailer's 70,000-strong collection of historical objects.

The firm, which claims to have introduced cup sizes to UK consumers 50 years ago, hosted a talk about the finds in Leeds, where M&S was founded.

Archivist Katie Cameron said the City Museum event offered "a glimpse" into its past innovations.

According to the company's website, it launched small, medium and large cups in 1951, which "didn't lend very much scope for different sizes of women," Ms Cameron said.

It was another 18 years before the company launched A-DD sizes.

Ms Cameron said the talk would highlight decades of changing styles and design innovation.

"There's been all sorts of change," she said.

Peach-coloured lace bra from the 1940s on a mannequin Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption This peach-coloured lace bra was sold in the 1940s
Two women in the 1950s modelling bras Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption Strike a pose: M&S Archivist Katie Cameron said these styles from the 1950s were "drastically different from today's favoured items"

Sisters and seasoned M&S shoppers Janet Roche, 69, and Kay Susan Ballantyne, 71, from Hull, recalled the first time they were fitted for a bra.

Mrs Roche said: "Bras back then in them days were more or less the same, where as now you can choose different sizes and styles such as strapless and things."

"You didn't have things like that a long time ago."

"But whether or not it fitted properly I don't think you thought about that."

"You didn't know your cup size back then," added Mrs Ballantyne.

Sisters Janet Roche and Kay Susan Ballantyne
Image caption "You didn't know your cup size back then," said Hull shoppers Janet Roche (left) and Kay Susan Ballantyne
Woman modelling underwear in 1973 Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption From C cups to coffee cups: This 1973 design shows a dramatic change from those seen 20 years earlier
Three women modelling underwear Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption By the 1970s, M&S was offering customers a bra-fitting service

But despite boasts of innovation, there are calls for retailers to do more in the search for the perfect fit.

Prof Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, who set up a bra-testing research centre at Portsmouth University, said the sizing system had changed "substantially" over the years with exact measurements for all cup sizes differing at nearly all retail outlets.

"There's no universally accepted bra sizing fitting and grading system. Sizes change from shop to shop," she said.

"There needs to be consistency and this is a real challenge for the bra industry."

Two women in the 1980s modelling bras Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption By the 1980s, sports bras like the one on the left were becoming a wardrobe staple for many women
Women modelling underwear Image copyright M&S Archives
Image caption M&S introduced post-surgery bras in 2006

Nicola Johnson, a course leader at London College of Fashion, said the industry was "seeing a shift in women's sizing" and echoed Prof Wakefield-Scurr's calls for "universal measurements".

"Some of the brands are simplifying it even more for themselves but not for the consumer," she said.

"If you're wearing a poorly fitted bra it can have a big impact on your health and can lead to breast pain and damage to breast tissue."

More information can be found about the M&S archive here.

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