I was a girl in my early twenties in London when the first Laura Ashley shop in London opened. From tiny premises in Pelham Street, South Ken, it soon needed more space and moved to the Fulham Road, and it was there that I bought my first dress, probably in 1970. Now, after some ups and downs in the intervening years, the worst of which was Laura Ashley’s death following a fall downstairs on her 60th birthday, I learn that in Elstree the chain has opened its first boutique hotel! Actually, not so ’boutique’ as it has nearly 50 rooms, but dressed throughout in Laura Ashley furnishings.
For me, though, much though I like the Laura Ashley homewares ‘look’, it is the dresses from the early 70s, long before the furnishing fabrics were produced, that really capture the spirit of the company. When those lovely frocks with their flowing ankle-length skirts, flounced at the hem and produced in a huge range of sweet prints, were launched they came as such a breath of fresh air. Late 60s and early 70s fashion had ended up in something of a cul-de-sac because hotpants couldn’t get any shorter, bell bottoms couldn’t get much wider, collars couldn’t become any more exaggerated, prints couldn’t be any more eye-poppingly psychedelic and big hair certainly couldn’t get any more absurd. And then what? Laura Ashley broke on the London scene with something so completely different, so pretty, so romantic and – by some standards – so primly charming, that wearing Laura Ashley was suddenly the height of being ‘with it.’
When in 1973, though, I got married – in a green Laura Ashley dress – and moved to live in County Durham, I discovered that the London fashions had definitely not penetrated as far as the north east! I found I was seen as an exotic import. I’m told people even began to wonder whether my long skirts (not always Laura Ashley, which I kept for best) concealed some terrible leg problem, since I wore them for everything from shopping to gardening to walking the dog. I didn’t care; wearing a Laura Ashley dress out to lunch or supper was fun and made me feel good. And that, to be honest, is still the feeling I get when I walk into the Bowes Museum’s current Laura Ashley exhibition, where 90 lovely cheerful dresses, five of them mine, are on display. In fact to judge from the comments in the gallery book, they make other people feel good too – and for any fashion designer that’s some legacy.
By Caroline Peacock, Chairman of Friends of The Bowes Museum