Laura Ashley was a welsh fashion designer. Her brand was characterized by romantic designs, pastoral life/ rural domesticity, floral prints, a 19th century feel and natural fabrics. If you were a woman growing up in the 70s or 80s, chances are you have a memory of coveting, wearing or living with something by the brand. It was both nostalgic and empowering.
Born in Wales and raised in London, Laura spent many holidays with her grandmother and great-aunts in Wales where she witnessed a strict Baptist household with polished brass fixtures and women with mending in their laps. “It was a world where neither moral values nor furniture had changed much in the previous 50 years,” Anne Sebba writes in her 1990 biography of Ashley.
She served in the women’s royal naval force during WWII. It was during this time that she met Bernard Ashley and the pair married in 1949.
While working as a secretary and raising her first two children, Ashley undertook some development work for the Women's Institute on quilting. It was here she was inspired to start producing printed fabric after the Institute displayed traditional handicrafts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. When Ashley looked for small patches carrying Victorian designs to help her make patchworks, she found no such thing existed. Here was an opportunity, and revisiting the craft she had learnt with her grandmother, she started to print Victorian style headscarves in 1953, largely because she and Bernard had just returned from a trip to Italy, where young girls were emulating Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday” and knotting them around their necks.
Bernard printed them on a machine he had designed in their attic flat in London.
The scarves quickly became successful and Bernard left his city job to print fabrics full-time. The company was originally registered as Ashley Mountney (Laura's maiden name), but Bernard changed the name to ‘Laura Ashley’ because he felt a woman's name was more in keeping with the style of products they were producing.
The new company moved to Kent in 1957 and set up a factory there in an old coach house. When the third of their four children was born, and after a devastating flood, the family moved to Wales in 1960.
Laura Ashley's first shop was opened at 35 Maengwyn Street, Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, in 1961. The family initially lived above the shop. Here, Laura worked with a seamstress to introduce their first forays into fashion, producing smock-like shirts and gardening smocks.
Eventually they moved again to Carno and this is where the final roots of the company were set.
With their high necks, full skirts, mutton sleeves and lace and ruffle adornments, these dresses, along with prim pin-tucked cotton blouses, lace-trimmed nightgowns and grosgrain-ribbon-tied hats, solidified the “Laura Ashley look.”
All of this arrived, as though she’d planned it this way, in time to be the perfect antidote to ’60s-era mod shifts and synthetic fabrics, and as many young hippies were rejecting the complications of urbanity in search of a simpler and more self-sufficient life. For all their implied conservatism, Laura Ashley dresses were also modern.
The 1970s were the brands golden era with their long, flowy dresses tapping into nostalgia for times gone by, evidenced by the popularity of the hit show Little House on The Prairie.
By the mid 80s, the company was employing 4,000 people and taking in $130 million a year in revenue.
Princess Diana was always the brand’s most famous unofficial ambassador.
“Living quite remotely as I have done, I have not been caught up with city influences,” she once told an interviewer. “We just developed in our own way.”
The whole family became involved in the business, from fabrics to designing to photographing.
Laura tragically passed away in 1985 at the age of 60 after falling down the stairs at her daughters home.
The brand floundered without its spearhead, and with the rejection of busy prints and prettiness in 90s fashion, it marked the beginning of the company’s demise and all stores in the US had been closed by 2003.
The brand went into administration in 2020 and all remaining stores in the UK and Ireland closed. Ironically, the pandemic that began in early 2020 moved a lot of people to the countryside and into their homes, which leant itself well to the Laura Ashley Style.
The brand’s influence is visible today in the trendy nouveau prairie or cottagecore look, possibly driven by the perilous state of the world! Who doesn’t want to wrap up in a quilted floral comforter, collapse on the couch and watch “Little House on the Prairie” right about now?
You can wear one of these pragmatic, pretty dresses in your escapist fantasies, but also in your actual life. Laura Ashley vintage dresses are closely coveted by vintage enthusiasts and seem to be ever-growing in popularity.
The photo above is a selection of Laura Ashley dresses we keep in our rentals collection. They are unfortunately not for sale but are great to study!
We have a 90s Laura Ashley dress in the store, which highlights the brand's attempts to fit into the trends of that decade and move away from their traditional aesthetic. However, it is still a beautiful silk cocktail dress with gorgeous beading.
We also have a dress which has had its label removed but that we suspect is Laura Ashley. And another by 'Sensations', which is in the Laura Ashley 80s style. Click the photos to shop!