09 May 2015

Laura Ashley, the cool 1960s and my life.

July 2013 saw the opening of Bath Fashion Museum‘s exhibition Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine. This was the largest Laura Ashley retrospective ever! The Bath Fashion Museum marked the 60th year of the company by celebrating the vision of the romantic heroine that Laura Ashley propelled in to fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. I liked the blogger who said: Looking around the packed Assembly Room, the crowd was largely female and “of a certain age”.

The exhibition paid homage to Ashley’s distinctive Georgian dresses, during a time when women were seeking escapism and solace in nostalgic days gone by. She recognised the zeitgeist of the time and prompted a generation of young women to dress as their romantic heroines (eg Thomas Hardy’s milkmaid from Tess of the d’Urbevilles).

The photo below from the Bath exhibition shows the mannequins dressed in a range of popular Laura Ashley prints. The 93 pieces showcased in the exhibition had been loaned to the exhibition from the company’s London and Welsh arch­ives, Bath Fashion Museum and The Bowes Museum in Durham. The curators noted that Laura Ashley’s interest in Bath in the early 1970s, and Bath’s association with Regency living and the novels of Jane Austen, may have helped inspire the Regency-style dresses.

Displays at the Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine Exhibition in Bath

I adored Laura Ashley dresses from the time I was old enough to select and pay for my own clothing in 1966. But not because of rom­antic nonsense about heartbroken Georgian milk maids. The Vietnam War was becoming increasingly tragic in the late 1960s, and thinking university stud­ents wanted to be Bohemian, down-to-earth young women who did not fall (too easily) for young men’s chat-up lines. The materials we wore had to be honest cottons, not cheap and nasty synthetics that did not last. The Flower Power generation wanted pacifism, socialism, feminism, protection of the planet and recycling. But I had no idea if the designer was herself a committed member of the feminist generation.

In 1942, young Laura Mountney (1925–1985) left school in order to do her bit for the war effort in the Women's Royal Naval Service. During this period she met engineer Bernard Ashley at some sort of social institution for teens. After the war, she worked as a secretary for the National Federation of Women's Institutes in London, eventually marrying her beloved Bernard Ashley in 1949. The Women’s Institutes may not have been radical, but they were community-based organisations that provided women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills. Laura Ashley loved working with, and for, ambitious women.

The Ashley family's first Welsh factory was established in 1966. Bernard had developed his flat-bed printing process to produce many metres of fabric every week.

Advertising stressed the chaste cotton print maxi-dress in earth-hewn natural colours
 Note the notion of a pastoral idyll far away from mad city life.


Ruth Guilding recognised that Bernard’s skill as a businessman meant they had to sell even more cloth, and so they did. In 1966 Laura produced her first clothes for purely social occasions - long dresses with long, puffed sleeves that quickly became the Laura Ashley trademark. High-necked pintucked tops above maxi dresses, trimmed with lace and a soft tie around the waist that ended in a bow at the back.

The wholesome, rural image may have been because of Laura’s Welsh Chapel Christianity that led her to disapprove of clothing that flaunted the body (according to her husband). Or it may have resulted from Laura’s own history as a country girl, honest, simple and nostalgic.

The company was well aware of changing fashions. Their long dress pattern was not thrown out after a couple of years; once women switched from the mini to the maxi skirt at the end of the 1960s, they simply adapted to the new world. But they did not lose their high moral principles. Materials were sourced locally whenever possible. And some clothing items were manufactured to pay homage to historical honesty, whether or not those items sold well.

Laura Ashley wedding dress with lace, 1971

The first Laura Ashley retail outlet opened in South Kensington in 1968, and soon other shops opened across Britain. Laura Ashley was established in Australia and Canada in 1971, much to my great excitement. The first Paris shop opened in 1974, as did the first shop in the USA (San Francisco, naturally).







16 comments:

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I guess the name Laura Ashley evokes different responses. They had a store in Beachwood, Ohio that always gave me the creeps. We used to watch horror movies in which dead children or women emerged from crypts to haunt someplace, and they always looked exactly like the Laura Ashley dummies/models. I think a lot of the original stories derived from Edgar Allan Poe, still one of my top favorite authors! It seems that everything converged on the early 19th century, with different intentions and results.

Andrew said...

Although perhaps not with great detail, men of a certain age could not avoid knowing about Laura Ashley dresses.

Hels said...

Parnassus

isn't it strange the connections we make.

Unlike most historical blog posts, I personalised this topic because everyone has one great era in their lives (if they are lucky). For me it was 1965-70 inclusive. when politics, social life and academic life all went swimmingly. And my Laura Ashley long dresses :)

Hels said...

Andrew

there was a type of man who knew this type of dress very well indeed - he was likely to buy his girlfriend books of poetry or Peter Paul and Mary records. Any man who valued getting drunk with the mates or not worrying too much about his personal hygiene would probably not have been familiar with the name Laura Ashley in the 1966-70 era.

My then-boyfriend (now husband)'s first gift to me in the 1960s was Leonard Cohen music. Of course it was :)

Deb said...

My sister got married in a white Laura Ashley dress in 1970. It looked fresh and youthful back then, and cost less than a gown made by a dressmaker.

Hels said...

Deb

I forgot about the wedding dresses... they were very fresh!! Brides as I recall didn't wear veils, diamonds and heavy makeup - rather they wore ribbons in their hair or flowery white hats.

I will try to find a good bridal photo to add to the post.

Ann ODyne said...

oh yes I married in Laura Ashley white linen flounced and banded with lace $38 it was and a copy of the costly 'Mexicana' frocks advertised in 1972 British VOGUES I still have.
Memory Lane thank you Hels.
she died after falling down the stairs.

AmandaT said...

I felt awful in micro mini dresses in the 1960s but very floaty in the long Ashley dresses.

Hels said...

Ann

I am delighted to hear your story.

The whole idea of history being only what happened centuries ago is clearly no longer right (if it ever was). Why dress designers selected their designs and why women bought their particular dresses in the 1960s are very valid historical questions. Especially the wedding dress.

Hels said...

Amanda

It doesn't matter why the mini dress was unacceptable: your parents were religious, your thighs were a bit big, you didn't want men leering at you. Many young women did not want to walk in the street with their undies on show.

Laura Ashley dresses were not only more modest. They were, as you say, more floaty and regal.

umashankar said...

I see a preponderance of blue fabric in those dresses; there might have been whites and other pastel shades too. I have seen such outfits around here where longer dresses had been more the norm —they may well have been inspired by Laura's oeuvre.

Hels said...

umashankar

I think the soft blues, greens and creams were reflective of a rural idyll, clean, peaceful and respectful of the natural world. I wore my 2 Laura Ashley dresses during those years, and loved the sense of simple dignity.

Janene said...

Laura Ashley was big in the 1980s. My sister loved them but they didn't suit me well. I felt like I was wearing a costume. But I thought they were so pretty--and expensive. Plenty of my friends came close to selling their souls to purchase one of those beautiful dresses!

Hels said...

Janene

I know exactly what you mean by costume-y. Clothes in any one year seem to look similar, even if they are made by different designers in different countries. But everyone else was wearing very short dresses in 1968-72, so Laura Ashley wearers looked as if they totally came from another era. I felt as if I belonged to a feminist pacifist sub-culture.

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I also grew up loving Laura Ashley dresses but being jr high school age couldn't afford my own. My talented seamstress mother tried to help with making me copies. My first REAL Ashley dress was a drool worthy red pinwhale corduroy jumper with lacy sleeves.
I can see my love of her fabrics influenced my love of wearing historical costumes now too. I'd swear she opened my eyes to beautiful textiles. And it does make me sigh looking at them now.
Val

Hels said...

TT

I think there must be a very special period in our lives (perhaps 15-19) where everything is absorbed, treasured and "branded" as our own. Fashions of course, but also music, literature, favourite holidays etc. etc. I only have to hear that first notes of the Beatles' songs Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby ..and I remember every word! From 1966! And The Mamas & The Papas' song Monday Monday.

In your case, Laura Ashley dresses still give you a warm feeling (along the lines I outlined) but also influenced your working with textiles and costumes today. I wonder if Ms Ashley is looking down from heaven and getting pleasure from watching a whole generation of middle aged women whose lives she once changed.