Laura Ashley

The British designer Laura Ashley (1925-1985) achieved renown for her genteel, Victorian inspired fashions in women's clothes and for her English Country manor style of furnishings for homes. Through her designs, books, and stores, she may be said to have served as an arbiter of fashion and life style.

Laura (Mountney) Ashley was born September 7, 1925, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, and died September 17, 1985, in Coventry, England. She was buried in Wales, where she was educated and grew up and where she established her world famous business of designing, manufacturing, and merchandising women's clothes and household items.

Her name had in her lifetime become synonymous with small, repetitive overall patterns; the use of natural fabrics; and a graceful simplicity in women's styles. Her dresses and blouses were noted for their Victorian-like high necks and full sleeves, the severity relieved by lace and ruffles. Particularly characteristic was her soft, floppy, wool felt hat with a broad flexible brim that could be worn down over the eyes and ears or pushed back so as to reveal the forehead. It became common to speak of a "Laura Ashley look," a term applied to her garments, fabrics, and interior designs and even to the appearance of the young, expressionless, fresh-faced women who modeled her clothes.

She married Bernard Ashley in 1949. On a kitchen table in their flat in the Pimlico section of London they designed placemats, scarves, tablecloths, aprons, and dresses by the silkscreen method. They soon moved to a country home in Surrey and in the late 1950s to Carno, Wales, now the headquarters of the firm's international operations. She concentrated on creating the designs and her husband on printing and merchandising them.

Her life in the Welsh and English countryside, amidst farms and villages, clearly influenced the combination of Puritan function and Victorian nostalgia of her designs. "Living quite remotely as I have done," she once said, "I have not been caught up with city influences and we just developed in our own way." She declared about her success: "It's not really a question of inspiration. What you make as a designer is an expression of yourself. I love music and painting and I prefer life in the country." Another time she said: "The idea of four babies, cooking, sewing, and looking after the home suited me perfectly." Of fashion she remarked: "I don't like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever…"

A major influence on her dress designing was her uniform as a Wren in World War II. She said about it: "The uniform was a very good quality navy gabardine and you could press it and wear it with a clean white cotton shirt and collar and tie. There was a nice, cheeky little hat and comfortable black leather shoes."

At another time, she said: "I reckon that women looked their best at the turn of the century." She studied 18th and 19th century prints in museum collections for her miniature floral patterns. "No one wants to live with a design that jumps out at them," she explained. Her colors, too, were subdued.

Her success was quick and extraordinary. Her fabrics were first sold in two of the smaller but highly fashionable London department stores, Heal's and Liberty's, both of which had a tradition of featuring thoughtfully designed and esthetically pleasing objects. Liberty's, for example, continued to offer fabric and wall paper in patterns originally created by William Morris, the 19th century English poet and book and furniture designer.

Toward the end of the 1960s Ashley opened her first retail store in London. It was marked by natural wood floors, cabinets, and counters; trim painted in a deep blue-green; old-fashioned lounge chairs; and a general air of elegant informality. The first American shop opened in 1974 in San Francisco. By the time of her death there were over 200 Laura Ashley stores throughout the world, each looking much like the original one. The firm had 4,000 employees. In 1984 the stores alone grossed $130,000,000.

The Laura Ashley look, evoking a sense of permanence with its links to the past and its dependence on the natural, proved so popular perhaps because it contrasted dramatically during its emergence with the more transient and extravagant styles of French and Italian designers who appealed to mass clienteles with bolder expectations. "I like the idea of a uniform," she once said. "I think people should hang on to the things they like. They don't need closets full of clothes." One of her admirers, paradoxically, was the late trend-setting Princess Diana, the former wife of the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne.

Laura Ashley preceded a generation of American designers working in a similar, restrained, classic style: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Ann Klein, and Perry Ellis. Although the volume of her retail business may have been less than that of other well-known clothes stylists, no other had quite her special influence or lent his or her name so definitively to an immediately recognizable look.

The Laura Ashley firm published three major books during her lifetime: Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870 by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt and A House in the Cotswolds and The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating by Elizabeth Dickson and Margaret Calvin, with a foreword by Laura Ashley. Through photographs of entire rooms, these volumes provided vivid glimpses of the environment of such novelists as Austen, Trollope, and Eliot. Perhaps even more, they serve as guides to many young persons today on how to furnish and decorate their homes.

Although early Laura Ashley products appealed mainly to women, the later ones, including upholstered chairs and sofas, furniture and drapery fabrics, wallpapers, and ceramic tiles, proved attractive to men as well. One particularly successful innovation of the Laura Ashley decorating style was to relate objects in a single setting to each other. Thus a Laura Ashley bedroom might have similarly patterned fabrics on bedspread, sheets, pillows, draperies, chaise lounge, and even the tiles in an adjoining bathroom. This organic integration of patterns made the typically small English chamber, however crowded, seem larger and quieter. The Laura Ashley look in home design, with its concentration on miniature and mid-sized floral patterns and its understated use of ornamental touches, provided a comfortable relief to the unrelieved starkness of modernism.

Further Reading on Laura Ashley

Up to the time of her death, no book had appeared which was devoted to her life and work. The titles mentioned in the text provide a good survey of the range of her interests and achievements in design. Many articles and interviews, indexed in the usual reference sources, may be found in leading American and British periodicals and newspapers, especially in the years immediately preceding her death. General books about fashion, providing a context for placing Laura Ashley, are Fashion in the Sixties by Barbara Bernard (1978); The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz (1978); Fashion from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, edited by James Laver (1965); and Fashion and Reality, by Alison Gernsheim (1963).