Spotlight on vintage fashion brands: Laura Ashley

Laura Ashley has always held a special place in my heart growing up. My mother would talk fondly about her clothes often, citing it as one of her favourite brands and source of inspiration for her fashion choices in the 1980s. In fact, she wore a floral Laura Ashley number for her 21st birthday and she says it’s still one of her favourite Laura Ashley pieces.

My mother in Laura Ashley for her 21st birthday (1985).
My mother in Laura Ashley for her 21st birthday (1985).

Despite her love for the brand, my mother didn’t have a lot of Laura Ashley clothes. They were expensive she explained to me, the dress for her birthday was Β£100 or maybe even a bit more. That’s a lot of money to spend on a frock now, let alone in 1985. Though my mother did get some of the money back through selling it to a friend (ah, the days before Depop) though of course personally I wish she hadn’t so if anyone ever spots this dress out in the wild, let me know, I’d love to buy it.

I think the cost of these dresses is important though, as it cements how these dresses were made to last. In fact Laura Ashley is famous for saying as such as well:

I don’t like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever.”

Laura Ashley

Laura Ashley dresses were made to be worn again, which is maybe why there price point was quite high in comparison to some of their competitors at the time. My mother has explained to me that they were more expensive than Topshop and M & S in the 1980s and the more price friendly C & A who were Laura Ashley’s other main competitors at the time.

It’s not surprising that when I see listings for people selling Laura Ashley they often cite that they wore the dress to a wedding or for another special occasion – for the average person a wardrobe full of Laura Ashley wouldn’t be possible. Though, I suspect Laura Ashley designed the dresses so they could be suitable for multiple different occasions.

History of the brand

“Small-scale prints, Victorian ruffled pinafores, old-fashioned smocks, feminine dresses and lace-trimmed nightgowns emphasized not only the Ashleys’ practical point of view but their back to nature, down-home philosophy as well.”

Suzanne Slesin, New York Times (1985 memorial to Laura Ashley)

1950s to 1970s

The seeds to the Laura Ashley empire actually originally started in the 1950s, as Laura and her husband Bernard Ashley started printing their own fabric on their kitchen table, as Laura wanted to make patchwork quilts, after an inspirational visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The business itself started to grow after they began to print and sell scarves (to John Lewis and Heals!), which they had noticed on a holiday to Italy had become extremely popular with young women after the release of Roman Holiday (which saw Audrey Hepburn chicly wearing scarves).

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

It was the 1960s that saw the real boom of the fashion side of Laura Ashley, after the couple moved to Wales (where Laura was born) and Laura starting working with a seamstress to produce smock shirts and gardening smocks. Originally then, the fashion of Laura Ashley was for a utilitarian, practical purpose but in 1966 they started producing dresses for social attire. For anyone who is familiar with Laura Ashley you will know that the desirable labels often feature the words ‘Made in Wales’ or ‘Made in Carno, Wales’.

Laura’s Victorian inspired maxi dresses were a huge hit and right on trend at the end of the 1960s where the silhouette of women’s fashion started to turn to the maxi again. They were so popular that the Ashley’s opened their first London shop in South Kensington in 1968.

Image source: Wales Online (look at that coat!!!)

In the 1970s the business skyrocketed and by 1975 over 40 shops had opened with concessions in Australia, Canada and Japan!

Above information sourced from the Laura Ashley website.

Nowadays, dresses from this period can reach up to Β£300 (I’ve seen some priced higher as well), I’d say the average asking price depending on the style is Β£70 – Β£200, with the coveted high neck, staple Laura Ashley dresses reaching more.

The earlier pieces tend to go for higher amounts and those still in perfect condition (no fading and it’s common for the elastic cuffs in these dresses to need to be replaced). When buying always check the label, you’re looking for that trademark ‘Made in Wales’ tag , which has several different incarnations so my advice is to refer back to this guide.

From my personal collection. An example from an early 1970s dress.
Another example from my personal collection. This label is also from a 1970s piece.

I’m afraid I can’t give that accurate information on sizing as I’ve seen a bit of a spectrum due to the different styles the older dresses came in but generally I’ve seen a side range equivalent to a UK 6, maximum UK 14. My advice would be to check the measurements, especially on the smock dresses, as depending on your bust/ upper body size there may be a little more wiggle room there.

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, in a gorgeous, soft 1970s Autumn Laura Ashley number.

“It’s the hyper-feminine shapes in beautiful, natural fabrics that keep me coming back. It’s so easy to look elegant in them, no matter what you do in them. I like to go walking in them, as much if not more than wearing one to work or a party.”

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle

The style of the 1970s dresses (click the link for a great blog post with lots of images from a Laura Ashley exhibit, which demonstrates some of the signature Laura Ashley styles) then is my personal favourite and especially any of the dresses in blue from that period! I was delighted then to recently get my hands on a pale pink in one of my favourite Laura Ashley silhouettes. It’s a bit of wounded bird, and you may notice that one of the sleeves needs the elastic replacing and that the dress is faded down one side but I love it anyway. As always it needs hemming and I’m hoping to replace the elastic in the sleeve but I couldn’t resist taking these photographs beforehand.

If you’re a Laura Ashley collector let me know if you’ve ever seen this one before, as although I’ve seen dresses from this period in pink, I’ve never seen it in this Laura Ashley style.

Dress: Vintage Laura Ashley from ReneLovesErnie on Etsy

Shoes: Keds (secondhand Depop)

Necklace: Vintage, from my boyfriend

1980s onwards

It was the 1980s that my mother first properly became introduced to Laura Ashley and when the Laura Ashley phenomenon took full effect, as by the end of the 1970s there were over 70 Laura Ashley shops worldwide.

In 1979 the Ashley’s moved to Northern France, which had an effect on Laura’s designs and around the same time Laura started to shift her attention to the home furnishings side of the business.

Above information sourced from the Laura Ashley website.

Fashion wise, in the 1980s the sailor dress became popular, alongside the florals that Laura Ashley became known for, especially when Princess Diana famously wore a Laura Ashley shirt to a photocall. Nowadays, the 1950s inspired floral designs are what I feel are the most popular and reach the highest prices (the average I’ve seen is about Β£50 – Β£100).

The what I call ‘Laura Ashley bridesmaid dresses’ (as I often see people when selling them mentioning that’s what they wore them) with puffed 80s sleeves, a nipped in waist and every colour from black to bubblegum pink are also popular, alongside any of the velvet pieces (especially the velvet coats – expect high prices for these). These coats tend to be quite Victorian/ Edwardian inspired and anything Laura Ashley with that aesthetic tends to be quite popular/ higher priced as well.

You can check out Cat’s Instagram: @Catseyes_shop here where she sells vintage clothing!

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, rocking a 1980s Laura Ashley dress.

“At last count I own and wear 5 dresses, one blazer and one waistcoat from the brand, but have bought and sold many more. At the moment my favourite is a 70s bell sleeve maxi with a v-neck, though am looking for a white, high-necked one to wear to my imaginary wedding.”

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle

If you’re looking for lower priced Laura Ashley then the 1990s are your best bet though at this point the brand had quite a different aesthetic. This is unfortunately because Laura Ashley passed away in 1985, after falling down the stairs. I actually discovered that this was the same year as the year my mother wore her Laura Ashley dress for her 21st birthday (her birthday was a few months before Laura’s death).

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, in a Laura Ashley waistcoat.

Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, in a Laura Ashley blazer.

I also had the opportunity to speak to Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, who I started following on Instagram recently after falling in love with her feed and style and thoughts on sustainable style, about why she loves Laura Ashley and she told me that: “A couple of years ago I fell in love with Rejina Pyo dresses, but as a writer, couldn’t afford their Β£600+ price tag. But they really reminded me of old Laura Ashley designs so, weirdly, that’s what sparked my obsession.”

One thing that has also really struck me about Laura Ashley as a designer is her lasting appeal, as Laura Ashley dresses are still highly collectable and sort out even today. Daisy pointed out that, “the designs are very flattering on most body types” and I think this is definitely the case. Laura Ashley hugs your curves if you have them and gives the appearance of curves if you do not (not that curves are the be all to end all – hopefully you get what I mean!).

However, significantly, I think Daisy hit the nail on the head on why Laura Ashley and prairie style is in fashion right now, “they conjure up a romanticism that is often absent from today’s clothes”.

The Prairie Dress Revival

As I discussed in my previous blog post about the American brand Gunne Sax, Laura Ashley has received a re-boost in popularity in recent years due to the revival of the prairie dress. Batsheva, whose fans include Natalie Portman, Erykah Badu and Lena Dunham, credits Laura Ashley as a major source of her inspiration and frequently posts images from the Laura Ashley archive on her Instagram. Personally, I love the edge and modernisation Batsheva brings to her dresses, it’s prairie but with loud, unexpected twists – to me it’s almost if prairie hit 80s neon at times or prairie with a slight punk edge.

Another popular label, Vampire’s Wife, is also often mentioned as a modern day version of the Laura Ashley look and if Bathseva is bright, loud prairie, Vampire’s Wife is the elegant, evening version of prairie.

For me, though Laura Ashley is the 70s equivalent to Gunne Sax in the United Kingdom – I look at these dresses and I can see the British countryside just as sometimes I can see a bit of a Western fantasy in Gunne Sax dresses. Both brands hark back to another era with their designs, though Laura Ashley tends to favour Victorian/Edwardian and regency designs (think Jane Austen), whereas, Gunne Sax almost has a more medieval vibe at times.

An example of a Gunne Sax dress.

How to style Laura Ashley

Personally, I love wearing the Laura Ashley 1970s pieces probably fairly close to how they would have been worn at the time; however, I know that look isn’t for everyone so I wanted to touch briefly on how you can make these styles work for you for a modern look.

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Looking for the secret garden πŸ‘€ in all second-hand

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Daisy Murray, Digital Writer for Elle, demonstrating a great example of how to style Laura Ashley for the modern day.

First of all, I’ll start by saying that it’s your garment, you can alter if you want to, but personally, I’m not a fan of altering vintage pieces to make a new design, particularly if they are collectable like Laura Ashley is. Of course, hem and adjust the size if you need to – there’s nothing wrong with that (try to hem in a way that the dresses length can be returned in the future if you can)!

Personally, the way I modernise these dresses is quite simply by putting them with modern pieces. Rock them with some trainers, add a leather jacket. Style your hair in a current way. Looking at what is trending is another great way to do this. I’d go on some more but I’m actually working on a piece on how to style prairie dresses for the modern day so watch this space!

A 1970s Laura Ashley dress (I’ve only ever seen a few halterneck Laura Ashley pieces from that period so jumped on this dress when I saw it).

Final thoughts

I know I’ll always be a fan of Laura Ashley whether it’s the beautiful prairie dresses of the 1970s or the 50s inspired floral dresses and sailor dresses of the 1980s, or even some of the chic pieces in the 1990s. If you ask me who the number one brand I’ll always buy from or what I’m hoping to find, it will always be Laura Ashley.

I also want to stress that I know I am lucky enough for the 1970s pieces to be able to wear them (minus needing to hem everyone dress I buy, ha, ha), as I’m not sure of the exact size range of the collections but apart from the very free fitting dresses (though larger sizes may struggle with the fit on the arms), as I mention earlier in this piece, I’ve not seen pieces go over a U.K. size 14 (though please note a vintage 70s size 14 is not the same as a modern day one). The 1980s pieces are generally more friendly to larger sizes (though they tend to run about a size small to current sizing, though not always, check the measurements!) and I’ve seen personally seen pieces go up to a U.K. 18. Unfortunately, I’ve personally not seen a wide size range available from the modern day equivalents, which honestly isn’t good enough – I want prairie for everyone.

Modern day Laura Ashley still takes inspiration from earlier designs but with a modern twist, and the brand did release a Archive collection of re-released designs a few years ago. Their blog also often has posts about the brand’s past, which is well worth checking out. There was also a collaboration with Urban Outfitters, which put a modern twist on some old Laura Ashley designs.

I do think though that the Laura Ashley legacy truly lives on with the rise of the prairie. It’s also important to mention that feminine dressing does not make you any less powerful (that’s sometimes I’ve had to reassure myself of a lot of the time) and just because you look like a Victorian heroine doesn’t mean you are one (unless of course you’re being a suffragette).

April (April is the Cruellest Month)

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Published by April is the Cruellest Month

I've been passionate about clothes and dressing up for as long as I can remember, from running around the house as a teletubby as a toddler to wearing my favourite gold dress for as long as I possibly could; I've always loved the power of a good outfit. My friends have called me a borrower because I'm always able to find a particular item in a shop/ online so here's my way of sharing that knowledge and hopefully make your wardrobe far less manic than mine!

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