Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine at the Fashion Museum in Bath

By Richard Moss | 15 July 2013

Exhibition preview: Laura Ashley - The Romantic Heroine, Fashion Museum, Bath, until August 26 2013

a black and white fashion shot of a little girl tying the necklace of a young woman in a floral gown
Sara Freeman and Emma Ashley photographed in Laura Ashley dresses (late 1960s)© Laura Ashley Ltd
The sepia toned archive photographs accompanying this exhibition might look like stills from a Roman Polanski Thomas Hardy adaptation, but for those with memories of a certain fashion phenomenon of the seventies, they are immediately recognisable as pure Laura Ashley.

This most quintessential of British fashion movements is revisited here with a first major retrospective of a designer who inspired a generation of women to dress like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, from Hardy's eponymous novel.

Nearly 100 frocks are on display – many of them borrowed from the Laura Ashley Archive in what Fashion Museum Manager Rosemary Harden describes as a celebration of “the vision of the romantic heroine that Laura Ashley gave to fashion during the late 1960s and 1970s”.

a black and white photo of four people outside a barn, three of them dressed in Laura Ashley dresses
© Copyright Laura Ashley Ltd
The Laura Ashley look actually has its roots in the early 1950s with the production of Victorian-style tea towels and head scarves which Ashley and her husband Bernard printed on a wooden-framed machine at the kitchen table of their Pimlico flat.

The demand was almost instant. From there they branched into soft furnishings. By the late 1960s, they had turned their attentions to fashion and the curious style that held sway with women for almost two decades was born.

“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," adds Harden.

It perhaps says as much about the lure of the past as it does about the vagaries of the fashion industry, but the Ashley style captured a notion of rural England that encapsulated both the hippy idealism of the early 1970s and eighties Aga Saga affluence. 

But if the style was unusual, the fashion shots promoting this curious fashion fad were even more so.

Often staged by the Ashley’s daughter Jane to look like pastoral scenes of Georgian or Victorian life, waif-like girls would channel these bygone years accompanied by the younger children of the Ashley family or by corn-chewing male models dressed as old-fashioned farm labourers.

The Laura Ashley brand may have moved on from this rural idyll, but with the fads of fashion being as they are, the company may yet return to the natural fabrics of a bygone era to take us Far from the Madding Crowd once again.

  • Open 10.30am-5pm. Admission £5.75-£7.75 (free for under-5s). Follow the museum on Twitter @Fashion_Museum.

More pictures:

a photo of a famaily of a man and a woman, three young children and a baby
Laura and Bernard Ashley and their four children (late 1950s)© Copyright Laura Ashley Ltd
a publicity shot of two long haired women wearing long floral Laura Ashley dresses
Girls in Laura Ashley print dresses with King Charles spaniels (1970s)© Copyright Laura Ashley Ltd
a photo of two women in Laura Ashley dresses leaning on the river wall of the Thames beneath an umbrella
Laura Ashley printed dresses and smocks, in the summer rain on Cheyne Walk / Chelsea Embankment (1970s)© Copyright Laura Ashley Ltd
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How wonderful - In the seventies I had a Laura Ashley kaftan block print dress with wide sleeves, wish I still had it. I'll go and see this exhibition.
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