Thursday, 8 August 2013

Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine [exhibition]

Prim styles, bold colours
The Fashion Museum in Bath is currently hosting an exhibition entitled ‘Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine’. It shows a collection of Laura Ashley's designs from the late 1960s and 1970s. Mr Robot and I dropped by at the weekend.

Entry to the exhibition is included in the price of a ticket to the Fashion Museum. If you haven’t already seen the ‘50 Fabulous Frocks’ exhibition, it’s a bit of a bargain. If you have already seen that one, I’m not sure the Laura Ashley exhibition alone warrants paying the same money all over again – that said, I’m not a massive 1970s fan, and as that decade’s often under-represented in fashion exhibitions you might disagree, or you might fancy revisiting the whole museum.

The first thing you see on walking in is a white title display, fronted by a set of white-on-white Laura Ashley frocks. The notes alongside the display pointed out that films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Katharine Ross plays a schoolteacher who wears a white summer dress in a memorable cycling scene, made the style popular.
Heathcliff, it's me, I'm Cathy, I've come home...

Don’t be fooled by those white cottons! Behind that crisp, clean beginning is a mass of colour. Laura Ashley started out printing fabrics on her kitchen table, and many of her dresses had print as their standout feature. I did find the prints fascinating. Most were quite large in scale, and very bold, but the colour palettes were limited so most fabrics only had two or three colours, keeping things from looking too gaudy. The subjects weren’t all pretty and twee, either: there were hunt scenes, odd birds, all sorts of subjects. Given the resurgence in the popularity of home dress making, it would be fabulous if the firm could re-release some of these patterns in dress weight fabric.

In multiple colours, the prints might be overwhelming, but they're fab in monochrome
One thing I do appreciate about the 1960s and 1970s is the misty nostalgia around the change of decade, whether that’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Great Gatsby, The Sting or Poldark and Upstairs, Downstairs. Many people longed for (what they believed was) a simpler time. What those films and telly programmes did in entertainment, Laura Ashley did in fashion.

Ashley played with Victorian, Edwardian and Regency styles – I could well imagine my steampunk friends having fun with the dresses. Maxi-skirted, full-sleeved and high-necked, the dresses are shocking in their primness. We’re so used to revealing garments nowadays that the bold ‘NO PEEKING!’ these dresses represent is truly startling. There are some saucier ones with halter necks, but on the whole they are quite concealing.

Note the emerald halterneck... Possibly the most revealing frock on show
Despite their romantic, nostalgic look, none of the dresses was overwhelmingly frilly. Think of an overblown, flouncy, meringue of a dress and you’ll probably be picturing something from the 1980s. These Laura Ashley frocks have puff sleeves or full cuffs, high necks or lace inserts, and even the occasional ruffle, but the silhouettes are mostly fairly simple. There are no waterfalls of lacy frills or panels of ruching.

My steampunk friends could rock this look!
A couple of people (Naomi Thompson and Liz Tregenza) have commented on Twitter that they think vintage Laura Ashley is going to become highly collectable. After walking round the display, I can see why. The prints, the shapes, the nostalgia... there’s nothing quite like them. If you’re in Bath, drop by the exhibition and see what you think. It runs until the 26th of August 2013.

All photos copyright PP Gettins.

You can see some of the later, more Regency-inspired dresses here.

12 comments :

  1. This is enough to make me want to hop on a train and visit! Thanks for this great post.

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    1. If you're ever in Bath, drop me a line - I work in the city. (I was in York recently, you've also picked a great place to live!)

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  2. I couldn't say that I would wear these as everyday wear, for a start they would probably fall half mast on me, but I do find a lot of them very appealing, the colours and styles are lovely.

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    1. It's such a different side to the 1970s. I think we get a lot of our pop-culture references re-fed to us by Hollywood and telly, and cultural history gets rewritten slightly. The nostalgic side of the late 60s/early 70s gets swept under a wave of glam rock and disco...

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    2. My husband has always said that popular culture rewrites fashion history. Someone I know refuses to accept women ever had curly hair during the 40's which frankly is a bit odd.

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  3. When they were current, Laura Ashley dresses were often worn as evening dresses e.g. for balls and dances. Some of the lighter ones were worn during the day, but I think it's fair t say that most of them were regarded as a bit too special for every day. That said, I remember a couple in plain colours which I wore to death!

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    1. That makes sense! There was a couple of shorter shift dresses which would have been wearable every day, but the longer ones do make better evening wear.

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  4. The textile curator at the large museum told me 4 years ago that she was on the lookout for early LA.

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    1. I still have a couple of bits from the 1990s - one's a top (and I'm still kicking myself for not hanging on to the matching trousers) and the other is the dress I wore to my first uni ball, a black silk one. That's missing one of its covered buttons; I think it fell off on a bouncy castle!

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  5. I always liked the earlier stuff, they have become as boring as everyone else nowadays. I have a velvet coat from there, probably 80's which surprisngly fits me...got it 2nd hand. A sort of Edwardian-ish/military flavour in style. When I was in my teens I used to covet a lot of their clothes but it was out of my price range. There's also a long black velvet evening dress with a sort of 40's vibe hanging in my wardrobe. Unfortunately it's too tight in the bust now but I'd only give it to someone who would appreciate it, and I don't know anyone whom it would fit. Their older clothing is not for those who are busty, it's always been on the small side across the chest.

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  6. One day I will get to Bath and to the Fashion Museum. This looks like a lovely exhibition, I really like some Laura Ashley prints. I agree, releasing some as dressmaking fabric would be great.

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  7. I absolutely adore Laura Ashley - I also had one of their dresses for my first Uni ball. Aubergine velvet, with a sweetheart neckline and keyhole back. My favourite thing about it was the pockets. Pockets! In a ball dress! Perfect.

    I have to say that I would happily wear almost any of the dresses shown in your photos, and am gutted I won't make it to the exhibition before it closes. I had a small piece of vintage lilac Laura Ashley fabric, and really wish I'd made into something for myself, rather than selling it.

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