Laura Ashley. I'm not sure I've even uttered the brand name on the blog before but it's likely to be a name that many of us have some tale or memory to tell. Its household status combined with the fact that it has been one of Britain's most successful design exports on an international level means that it's a name that manages to induce violent waves of nostalgia, good and bad. Florals. Milkmaids. Folksy. Quintessentially English. Curtains. Pillows. Chintz. The fact that Laura Ashley's core business today revolves around its famous homeward means that its fashion heritage continues to be dogged by those key words.
When I was given the opportunity to head down to Laura Ashley HQ, in lieu of their 60th anniversary year, to explore their archives with their archivist Angela Jeffery, I was like "Hell yes!". I love to eat my own words and say that I had misconceptions and as predicted, Angela was there to refute the cliches that surrounds a brand like Laura Ashley after meticulously cataloguing every bit of imagery, catalogue, samples, research material, sketches and press clippings.
It started with Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard Ashley printing small runs of headscarves, napkins, table mats and tea towels on their singular silk screen in their London flat in 1953. From the beginning, their designs were rooted in the past, looking to Victorian designs to create headscarves which were a success. Laura Ashley became a proper business, eventually movings its operation to Wales where the factory and design studio was based. From homewares, they gradually moved into affordable fashion, quite accidentally when they found that customers were wearing their kangaroo pocketed smocks on social occasions. Ashley designed for the home first and foremost, serving real needs of women but when her countryside-sympathetic aesthetic began to be picked up towards the end of the sixties, that's when Laura Ashley's fashion arm really bloomed.
It is also from this period where we get the most evocative imagery that is surprisingly enduring and shows a very different side to my own perceptions of Laura Ashley. Angela, my archivist guide for the day, pointed out that the references that the design team looked at were very broad and went beyond just the flawy, puff-sleeved max-dress. "People having already small idea of what Laura Ashley did. They really weren't constrained to high necks, plums, browns and ditzy prints. English medieval, William Morris, Chinese, Egyptian – they looked at everything. Laura had a very firm idea of what she believed was right and what she wanted to do. But they were actually quite open-minded."
From the vast mound of photographs taken mostly by Jane Ashley, Laura and Bernard's daughter who became the company photographer at the age of 18, you get the sense that the Ashleys really had a lot of fun raiding history and how it could have been perceived as daring at the time. Vintage clothing was non existent if you were outside of the London-centric Kings Road circle. Laura and Bernard both cannily knew that people wanted a little bit of countryside in their lives even if they lived in urban settings. The popularity of their long Victorian/Edwardian-inspired gowns or voluminous peasant dresses went hand in hand with the fact that women loved the fantasy of pastoral lifestyle and likewise, their homewards also fitted into this aspiration. You can compare it to the blokes today who walk around Shoreditch or Williamsburg in Barbour jackets or lumberjack outfits. Angela noted that many donations she had gotten from people were often fag-stained or wine-stained – these were party dresses that whilst having a genteel countryside aesthetic, were actually worn in urban situations.
The beautiful dreamer images that Jane Ashley took (actually her brother Nick and father Bernard also dabbled in company photography) reflected both romanticised and heightened portrayal of the past, like scenes you imagine from Tess D'Urburvilles or the like. Some of the images were very sympathetic and faithful to their relevant inspiration epoch. Some were more ambiguous and deliberately more atmospheric. What's interesting is that the barefooted innocent ditzy floral frocked girl in these Laura Ashley brand images has its place in the whimsical girly mindset that is repeated and reblogged today on sites like Tumblr. Think of how many posts you've seen dedicated to the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides and how those prim and delicate dresses could so easily have been from Laura Ashley.
Jane Ashley's more interesting and perhaps even latently sexual imagery that she created were definitely a surprise for me to see. She just so happen to go to art school with two girls from punk band The Slits and Mick Jones and Paul Simmonen from The Clash and so they also did a spot of modelling for the brand, again a surprising association that I would never have made.
Their iconic catalogues are what I remember the most about Laura Ashley. My mother had a few that she kept from the early eighties even though she rarely ordered anything. As I flicked through a ton of them at the archive, it was fascinating to see the art composition of the images. Yes, there are cheesy set-ups where a model might be nonchalently holding a pot pourri pot but there's definitely an aesthetic value in seeing these dreamy settings and flamboyant attire that in vintage form today would get a lot of people hot and bothered around the collar (when Laura Ashley did re-release and revive some styles in 2000, they were hugely popular). In the eighties era of Laura Ashley, there was an added boldness and grandeur that infiltrated their home furnishing designs as well as the clothing. When Princess Diana was a fan of the brand, it marked a Sloane Ranger association despite the fact that the clothes were still very much affordable and from the high street.
More surprises are uncovered when you leaf through Laura Ashley press clippings. In the seventies, The Sunday TImes Style did a feature on Mexican-inspired fashion and so Laura Ashley knocked up a slightly provocative broderie anglaise blouse overnight for the shoot. It was known as the B49 blouse and became one of their best-sellers.
Angela revels in submissions and donations from the general public. The archives have in abundance, photos of people getting married wearing Laura Ashley such as this photograph here. There's a collective experience in the nostalgia we feel for Laura Ashley, whether you lovingly wore it, your mother made you wear it or you bought it vintage, the second/third time around to wear with your Dr Martens.
Here are some of the earliest prints produced by Laura Ashley's design studio. Laura Ashley was more of a creative director, never sketching herself but instead employing art students to draw and then correcting them over their shoulders.
Angela's most precious donation from the archive is this geometric print silk scarf, one of the earliest designs from the beginning of Laura and Bernard's single silk printing days. Laura and Bernard would print these scarves and Bernard, who at the time worked in the City, took them into boutiques there to sell, checking after work to see if they had sold. A lady bought this scarf in the City and a few years ago, sent it into Laura Ashley, thinking it wasn't anything significant. It is the only physical specimen of this silk scarf that the Laura Ashley archive has ever seen. It will be re-issued this year for the anniversary.
Here's one of Laura Ashley's earliest floral prints from the sixties when they had started doing clothing, moving from aprons and smocks to more clean-cut shift dresses.
It was their homewares that really set their business soaring. I like the wit injected into their apron and tea towel designs that again, can be compared to the present day's Brit-lovin' design cliches – like the Keep Calm and Carry On printed homewares that never seem to end.
A few samples of some of their most well-known fashion pieces were also in the archive although there are many more that can be found in Laura Ashley's archive in Wales. Angela will be very busy this year, pulling pieces in to curate various exhibitions that are being staged. I'm very much grateful to her and Laura Ashley for giving me a mere glimpse into an archive that very much contradicts our basic notions of the brand.