Fashion’s Romantic Heroine: Laura Ashley
The Fashion Museum in Bath will showcase over 70 Laura Ashley dresses in a special summer exhibition that will run to the 26th August. Laura Ashley came to the fashion fore in the 1960’s and 1970’s and brought floaty florals to a generation of women that was the antithesis of the urban mod scene.
Rosemary Harden, the Manager of Bath & North East Somerset Council’s Fashion Museum, said: “We’re celebrating the vision of the romantic heroine that Laura Ashley gave to fashion in the late 1960s and 1970s. A classic example was the chaste cotton print maxi-dress in earth-hewn natural colours – whisking us away with the notion of life in a golden age; a pastoral idyll far from the mad city life.”
While Laura Ashley worked as a secretary and was busy with her first two children, she undertook some development work for the Women’s Institute on quilt work. Taking up the craft she had learnt with her grandmother, part-time she designed headscarves, napkins, table mats and tea-towels which her husband Bernard printed on a machine he had personally designed.
The couple had invested £10 in wood for the screen frame, dyes and a few yards of linen. Laura’s inspiration to start producing printed fabric came from a Women’s Institute display of traditional handicrafts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. When Laura looked for small patches carrying Victorian designs to help her make patchworks, she found no such thing existed. Here was an opportunity, and she started to print Victorian style headscarves in 1953.
The Ashley’s’ scarves quickly became successful with stores, retailing both via mail order and high street chains such as John Lewis – Bernard left his city job to print fabrics full-time. This put them on the road to becoming an international company with a brand that is recognized around the globe. Laura designed the prints and Bernard built the printing equipment; Laura remained in charge of design until shortly before her death, while Bernard handled the operational side.
Employing staff to cope with the growth of sales, the company was originally registered as Ashley Mountney (Laura’s maiden name), Bernard changed the name to Laura Ashley because he felt a woman’s name was more appropriate for the type of products. The new company moved to Kent in 1955, but when the third of their four children was born, the family moved to Wales in 1961, the country where Laura was born and had spent much of her childhood.
Laura Ashley’s first shop was opened in Machynlleth, Powys (35 Maengwyn Street) – it still trades as an interior design shop, and the Laura Ashley association is commemorated by a small plaque. The family lived above the shop for 6 years before moving to Carno, Powys.
Angela Jeffery, Archivist at Laura Ashley Ltd, said: “We’re very excited to be working with the Fashion Museum on the occasion of Laura Ashley’s 60th anniversary and we can’t wait to see the end results in July and August. Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine will then travel to The Bowes Museum in County Durham for its only other UK showing. We are also delighted to be working with our colleagues in the North East at the wonderful Bowes Museum.”
Councillor Ben Stevens (Lib-Dem, Widcombe), Cabinet Member for Sustainable Development, said: “Bath became home to one of the first Laura Ashley stores in 1971, and now the city houses one of the world’s great museum collections of historic and fashionable dress, that includes a fine collection of signature Laura Ashley dresses. Bath & North East Somerset Council is therefore proud to host this celebration at the Fashion Museum to offer a wide variety of culture and creativity to everyone.
“Ahead of the exhibition we hope that people will enjoy sharing their own Laura Ashley photos and memories – maybe they had a favourite outfit in their teenage years or they decorated their first home with Laura Ashley furnishings. We’d love to hear from them, whatever the tale may be.”
To coincide with the exhibition, Laura Ashley is inviting people to share their treasured photographs and memories of the designer for a competition running on its Facebook page. A selection of these will also be shared by the Fashion Museum through its Twitter feed (follow @Fashion_Museum #LauraAshley60) and Facebook page (search for “Fashion Museum”).