Archives, sparking memories and bringing generations together

Picture courtesy of the M&S Company Archive

Picture courtesy of the M&S Company Archive

It’s Explore Your Archive week, and today’s themed hashtag is #archivecatwalk. As much as we’re enjoying the photos of the highlights –and low points – of sartorial history (looking at you, 1970s!), we want to show how the M&S Company Archive is showing fashion archives can do more than just make us smile.

In Archives Unlocked, we explored how archives can improve our wellbeing. The M&S Company Archive, based at the University of Leeds, is putting this into practice – their archive is full of treasures that can evoke memories and reminiscences for people with dementia. The archive has a mixed collection of documentary business history, a growing born-digital collection and clothing, accessories and other objects which help to tell the story of the company’s place in the UK’s retail history.

Using objects in their handling collection, they create memory prompts to stimulate conversation; reminiscence therapy can improve mood, wellbeing and some mental abilities such as memory. I spoke with Katie Cameron at the archive, who told me a bit more about the project.

‘Garments and accessories in particular have the potential to bring back memories and encourage conversation. At a recent session a lady explained how she used to make garments for M&S, however she couldn’t recall exactly what she used to make. We handed her a 1960s bra-slip and as soon as she handled the garment, she remembered she used to make bras. Handling the original garment ‘unlocked’ that memory for her, she was then able to go into greater detail about the types of fabric used and other design points.

Using fashion and clothing as a tool means participants don’t necessarily have to have memories of M&S – though they often do! The styles, prints and patterns of the 1940s or 1950s bring back memories regardless of where people shopped, or if they made their own clothes. People like to talk about their sugar starched petticoats, or their fathers who wore detachable collars.

We encourage participants to try on the garments – it’s incredible to see what effect this can have. An example from a recent session illustrates this – a gentleman who was very quiet and reluctant to become involved in the session was persuaded to try on a 1970s smoking jacket. As soon as he put on the garment he stood up and began ‘performing’ as if on a stage, walking around the room while the group cheered him on. This session showed how it’s not always about remembering. This gent might not have ever worn a garment like that, or recalled seeing one, but putting it on as “fancy dress” had a positive effect on him.’

Picture courtesy of the M&S Company Archive

Picture courtesy of the M&S Company Archive

The M&S Company Archive is also reaching across the generational divide, bringing together A-level students with a group of care home residents through the Sparking Memories project. Over nine weeks the students introduced archive objects to the care home residents, and together the group created artwork inspired by what they’d seen. Many of the objects used were garments and accessories. Students were encouraged to talk one-to-one with the residents, and were able to share stories of favourite clothing, using the archive garments as prompts.

It is exciting seeing how archives are able to benefit our communities in new and interesting ways. Knowing how nostalgic certain items make me for my own childhood (thankfully you don’t come across too many ra-ra skirts and sparkly leg warmers these days), it makes perfect sense that they can have a powerful impact in this way.

If you want to use these resources, the M&S Company Archive loans free memory boxes to care homes and memory cafés across the country. They also provide outreach visits in the Leeds area, using original clothing and accessories to run sessions at Live at Home groups, care homes, memory cafés, and so on. Get in touch with them if you would like to know more.

We hope many more such projects will pop up using pieces of the past to help improve the lives of people in the UK.


  1. Barbara Morrisroe says:

    I hope this becomes A thing for Canada,it is so gratifying to see Seniours with dementia light up when they see some thing they remember.

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