Wednesday, 2 October 2013

I Can't Believe I Forgot About Laura Ashley

I realised earlier this evening that I had clear forgotten to tell you about the Laura Ashley exhibition, which is ridiculous as it was one of the most amazing exhibitions I've ever been to.
For a very long time I was completely opposed to anything Laura Ashley, on account of the unappealing wallpaper that I was not allowed to get rid of when I moved out of the shared bedroom and into the old spare room at my parent's house. It was a large repeating print of some exotic looking fruit bushes with a lot of white space between and it matched the table cloth in the dining room. Eventually I got my way and painted the walls bright yellow and orange, which they still are, though this is by the bye as 'my room' is now the model railway room. It took me a while to realise that the origins of Laura Ashley were something else entirely, and not until I went to the Assembly Rooms in Bath this summer did I fully appreciate just how different they were.
Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine was staged to mark the 60th anniversary of the company, which began when Laura and her husband Bernard built their own screen printing press in the kitchen of their Pimlico flat and produced small printed textiles like tea towels and oven gloves. By 1961 they had relocated to Wales and were beginning to produce fashion garments, like shifts, smocks and loose dresses. By the 1970s they were a high street staple and favoured by women in villages and cities for their trademark nostalgic, pastoral style.
The purple shift on the far right is an early design and really shows how different the company was in those days, it's obviously a very young, fun piece, made to be noticed. All four of these dresses are notable for their daring colour and length, quite a contrast to Laura Ashley womens wear of today, which is very nice if you are 35+ with a bit of cash to spare, but not exactly ground breaking. I went in to the exhibition expecting to be drowned in pastels and was proved very wrong.
The cut of these two dresses is classic 1970s Laura Ashley, full of historic references and construction details, like the pin tucked hem on the right, and the cut of the sleeves on the left. It's the colour and the print that makes them so striking though, that lime green is almost painful to look at. These weren't easy designs to wear, and I think it would be easy to under estimate how much of a statement you'd be making in them. 
They might be demure and feminine but in no way would you blend into the background. These were BIG dresses, full of bold shapes and daring patterns. When you're covered in that much fabric you can't fail to be noticed. The influence of historic costume was everywhere, so many of these dresses I could have put on stage in a 19th century play and I don't think anyone would have questioned it, though perhaps it was the opulent surroundings fooling my senses.
The exhibition itself was so simply designed, with just a single 'island' full of the dressed mannequins. Every time you stopped to look at a dress you caught a glimpse of another hidden behind and had to stop yourself racing around to see what it was.
The explanatory notes shared the stories of people who had bought and owned the dresses in the 60s and 70s, some for weddings, some with their first pay packet, some as a treat when visiting other cities with the luxury of their own Laura Ashley shop. Even when we were walking around other visitors were talking about their experiences of Laura Ashley at that time (apparently not always brilliantly made, quite often on the wonk) which I think shows how the attitude to buying clothes has changed. Are we going to be recounting stories of that t-shirt we bought in Primark in 40 years time?
This skirt was made out of fabric remnants, hand stitched together over one summer while the owner was working as a nanny in Spain, and is still being worn by her daughters. Stories of buying the Laura Ashley prints and making or altering existing garments were numerous, it seems at that time that women in particular had the necessary skills, and that fabric was cheaper and easier to get

For me it's the prints that made this exhibition. There is no doubting how the company began life, and it's a crying shame that they seem to have moved so far away from these beginnings, in the fashion lines at least.
I would love to see a revival line featuring some of these early prints, because there is just nothing like it on the market at the moment, and they are all so beautifully intricate and unusual.
I don't know if I'd be brave enough to wear one of these dresses now, but I'd like to think I'd try. There were some much simpler styles I haven't shown here, but you can see the whole set of photos I took over on my Facebook page. I'd love to hear if any of you have tales from Laura Ashley's golden days, or are harbouring some vintage gems in your wardrobe! Unfortunately the exhibition is now over so I can't urge you to go and see it yourself, perhaps it will return one day, who knows?


  1. Your post has taken me back to about 1980, and the pleasure I had in owning a Laura Ashley dress. Mine was probably one of the cheaper ones, blue and white with short puffed sleeves, but I was so proud of it. Height of fashion.

  2. Philippa Bosworth14 August 2014 at 19:21

    Do you still feel the same way about your old wallpaper? Laura Ashley prints were truly lovely and the smaller ones made wonderfully feminine dresses as well as beautiful household linens

    1. Yes. That wallpaper was nowhere near as nice as any of this stuff. :P


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