The Little History of Laura Ashley

When I first told my mum about The Merz earlier this year, she asked me what sort of pieces I wanted to curate. At the time I told her that I had my eye on a beautiful vintage velvet Laura Ashley dress (which I then proceeded to buy later that day). Simply put, her response went along the lines of surprise and shock as, 20 years ago, Laura Ashley was deemed frumpy and matronly; slightly different from the fashionable collector’s items they are today. And, it’s true, vintage Laura Ashley’s frocks are starting to pop up in every fashionista’s wardrobe, a far cry from what my mum used to think! 

That one Laura Ashley soon became two, and after revealing them on my instagram last week, I’m super excited to see which forever homes they will go too (even though I really wish I could keep them myself!).

To celebrate these two dreamy Laura Ashley dresses dropping this week, lets take a trip down memory lane to learn a little more about the magic of Laura Ashley and why she is currently having a fashion renaissance!

Laura Ashley was a Welsh-born designer who only started her business in the 1950s with her partner Bernard Ashley in their small flat in Pimlico, London. At this point in her life, Laura was a secretary and she had started doing some work for the Women’s Institute of Quilting, which not only sparked her interest in this form of craftsmanship but also the idea that a familial craft can be passed down for generations. In her spare time, Laura was known to frequent to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington where she was instantly inspired by the Victorian patterns, handcrafts, shapes, and style of dress. Back in her small flat, Laura and her husband started printing small batches of headscarves, napkins, table mats, and tea towels. Her designs were an instant success, especially due to the release of Roman Holiday in 1953, which saw the short patterned silk scarf (worn by Audrey Hepburn) become a haute fashion item amongst the middle and upper classes. As their small business grew, the couple relocated to an old railway house in rural Wales which gave them both the literal and creative space for their business to fly!

Laura Ashley 1983 A/W Catalogue, Source – Pinterest

The first Laura Ashley dress was crafted in 1966, and only two years later in 1968, the first Laura Ashley shop opened in South Kensington. Just 7 years after opening her first shop, the annual turnover for the brand was £5 million. 

But why was Laura Ashley so successful? Her 1970s provincial bucolic designs of floppy frocks and prairie dresses were instantly attractive to the modern woman, especially those who lived in cities. Her designs were the literal construction of a country dream, a sartorial symbolism of escapism, and an antidote to the chaotic crowded city, which many hippies of the day loved. She enlisted the help of her daughter Jane Ashley, an amateur photographer who photographed her friends wearing her designs. This realistic and warm portrayal of clothing easily connected with her audience and growing loyal fanbase.

Laura Ashley S/S 1983 Catalogue, Source – Pinterest

In the 1980s, Laura Ashley found a new audience: the  “Sloane Ranger”. The Sloane Rangers were wealthy upper-middle or upper-class person that frequented Chelsea and Kensington. Of course, these today would most likely be found on the cast of Made in Chelsea, but back in the 1980s, their most famous archetype was Princess Diana. These women would often wear cult brands like Liberty and Hermes, wear pearl necklaces, crisp white shirts and stereotypical “preppy” attire as well as having a penchant for equestrian activities. Laura Ashley soon became a firm favourite in their wardrobes, which although led to the brand’s worldwide success, it also started to lead to its slightly unfavorable reputation, especially amongst the counter-cultural movements of the 1980s and 1990s, which is why to my own mother it was seen as “frumpy”. 

Laura Ashley A/W 1983 Catalogue, Source – Pinterest

Of course, as fashion lovers and fashion history followers know, fashion is incredibly cyclical and the rise in vintage and second hand has led to many of these old Laura Ashley gowns being re-sold and re-loved once again. The past few years, trends have leaned towards these easy-to-wear comfortable smock gowns and the love for puffed sleeves, corseted waists, empire lines, and breathable fabrics have easily aligned with current trends for chunky boots, bomber jackets and frothy cardigans.

Georgia Murray (Fashion Editor at Refinary 29) styling her forest green vintage Laura Ashley number, Source – Refinary 29

We also cannot ignore, especially as we are in the midst of a “Tik Tok” culture, the emergence of “cottagecore” and “royalcore”, two fashion and lifestyle trends that many young women are leaning towards. This “aesthetic” is to live a quiet provincial life, an escapist fantasy from the Covid-19 pandemic and fitting with the cookie-cutter world of wellness we are all living in too. These women frolick (and rightfully so) in these gowns in 1-minute videos then upload to Tik Tok and well, the views and widespread commentary on this – enter this Architectural Digest article and New York Times article – and it truly speaks for itself.  This idea has lead to Laura Ashley becoming the cult vintage label that every cottagecore “it” girl has to own.

Laura Ashley Wedding Dress from 1984 S/S Catalogue, Source – Muses of Marilyn

Sadly, the past couple of years haven’t been kind to Laura Ashley, on the 17th of March 2020, the company filed for administration. However, as you can clearly see on their instagram, they have been publishing archival pictures and prints, so they clearly are aware of their resurgence and also of their cemented spot in the British fashion industries hall of fame.

So, vintage Laura Ashley is back for good it seems, and if you want to get in on the action, I have the perfect dresses for you. Just head to our shop page to currently see our Noel collection, with 10% of the sale going towards Labour Behind the Label.

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