In 1952, a 28-year-old secretary attended a traditional handicrafts exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Inspired especially by the hand-printed fabrics she encountered there, the young woman returned home and told her husband that she had never seen anything like them in stores, and wanted to try making some similar styles herself. The pair spent 10 pounds on wood for a screen, dyes and linen and, after poring over a handful of instructional library books, began silk-screening textiles at the kitchen table of their small London flat.
The following year, while awaiting the birth of their first child, they printed scarves, largely because they had just returned from a trip to Italy, where young girls were emulating Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday” (1953) and knotting them around their necks. Orders from high street shops soon flooded in. Next, they made tea towels, napkins and place mats with simple geometric patterns.
Not long after, in March 1954, the couple, Laura and Bernard Ashley, officially founded Ashley Mountney Ltd. — Mountney being Laura’s maiden name. Eventually, though, Bernard felt that an unambiguously feminine-sounding moniker would better suit their products, and they rechristened the company Laura Ashley.
By the mid-80s, what had started as a D.I.Y. craft project was a booming family business with global reach, one that employed 4,000 people in more than 220 stores worldwide and grossed roughly $130 million a year in revenue. Put another way: If you are a woman who grew up in the ’80s or early ’90s, chances are you have a memory of coveting, wearing or living with something by the brand, known for its floral chintz fashions and housewares.
Perhaps you had a Laura Ashley bedroom, as I did, my bedspread, sheets, dust ruffle and wallpaper all featuring the Bramble pattern, whose deep green ivy and royal blue strawberries are the backdrop to so many of my teenage memories. Perhaps you (or you and your mother) wore a demure ditsy floral print dress to church on Easter Sunday, or you went to the mall and left with a cotton button-down with a Peter Pan collar, a style favored by the oft-imitated Princess Diana.
While other designers were relentlessly focused on the cosmopolitan and the new, Laura Ashley was looking to the Victorian past, with its sense of propriety and correspondingly modest silhouettes, and to its designer’s ultimately rather pastoral life. “Living quite remotely as I have done, I have not been caught up with city influences,” she once told an interviewer. “We just developed in our own way.”
Indeed, the name “Laura Ashley” has long been shorthand for anything romantic and evocative of the countryside, examples of which, in recent years, have abounded anew. In fashion, the brand’s influence is visible in the nouveau prairie look (see also: prairie girl, frontierswoman, Amish chic, cottage-core, trad) popularized by lines like Batsheva, Horror Vacui, Dôen and LoveShackFancy; in the daintier, fairy tale-style dresses by Simone Rocha; and in the arresting creations of a wave of rising designers, including Kika Vargas, Yuhan Wang and Sindiso Khumalo, who, with their luxe fabrics and avant-garde designs, are putting their own stylish, sophisticated twist on the aesthetic.
Designers of home décor, too, are embracing the English country look and offering a warm, cozy corrective to minimalism. See interior designer Flora Soames’s classic striped textiles in green, red or lilac, or the wicker picnic basket, complete with a floral-print tablecloth, that the tableware line Mrs. Alice launched with Matches Fashion this summer. Horror Vacui is now selling a series of scallop-edged patchwork throws, and LoveShackFancy has waded into the realm with delicate, girlish bedding and wallpaper, partnering with A-Street Prints on the latter. Still more floral wallpaper can be found in the recent collaboration between the flower stylist Willow Crossley and Barneby Gates, the resulting hand-printed motifs reminiscent of early Laura Ashley textiles.
And yet, despite the brand’s enduring influence, few seem to know that Laura Ashley — like Liz Claiborne, Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan, among other eponymous designers of their own lines — was a real woman, not just a mellifluous name. Born in Wales in 1925, Laura Mountney was raised in London by a civil servant father and a homemaker mother, who, to the great shame of her elder daughter, was not particularly skilled in the domestic arts. Laura and her younger sister, Mary, were often sent by train to Wales to visit their grandmother and great-aunts, and it was there that they witnessed a strict Baptist household with polished brass fixtures and women with mending in their laps.
“It was a world where neither moral values nor furniture had changed much in the previous 50 years,” Anne Sebba writes in her 1990 biography of Ashley, and it surely contributed to the young girl’s idealization of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. From time to time, Laura was also sent to stay with her paternal aunt, Elsie Mountney, who, with no children of her own, doted on her niece, giving her books and buying her Liberty dresses. Aunt Elsie’s middle-class life was one of “fastidiousness, good taste and gentility,” Sebba writes — the very qualities that the young Laura would one day be in the business of peddling.
At the start of World War II, she evacuated with her mother and siblings to Wales, but the local secondary schools were full, and Laura, age 14, was sent to secretarial college instead. At 18, she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, popularly known as the Wrens; for a time, she operated the teleprinter in an English country mansion from which the Normandy landings were being planned.
The uniform (“very good quality navy gabardine, and you could press it and wear it with a clean white cotton shirt and collar and tie,” she told an English newspaper) shaped her lifelong belief in quality fabrics. Laura Ashley garments were made of natural textiles, often cotton, like calico and corduroy, along with wool, silk, velvet or lace.
In 1949, she married Bernard Ashley, a rebellious, charismatic businessman with a knack for all things mechanical, who, once they launched the company, handled its financial and operational aspects. In 1955, the young family relocated to Surrey and, in 1957, moved their factory to a 1,200-square-foot coach house in rural Kent. Four years later, having endured a devastating flood that nearly wiped out the fledgling business, they moved again, this time to Laura’s native Wales. There, in a small rural town called Machynlleth, they opened their first retail shop, a kind of general store that, in addition to Ashley Mountney products, as they were still called, also sold commodities like honey, walking sticks and Welsh flannel clothing.
The rather bohemian clan, who’d once made their home in two tents on the banks of an estuary, lived above the shop for several years before putting down real roots in Carno, which became the longtime headquarters of their empire, for which all four of the couple’s children went on to work. “Business was discussed at every mealtime,” Jane Ashley, the eldest, has said. In her capacity as the company photographer, she produced unpolished, soft-focus images of rural domesticity that captured the “calm, beautiful, naïve fantasy,” as the designer Batsheva Hay of Batsheva puts it, projected by the brand.
Ashley, who had no formal design training, made her first foray into dresses in 1959, when she began producing gardening smocks. “She didn’t go in and say, ‘Let’s create a fashion collection.’ It was really, ‘What is it that I use in my life?’” says Penne Cairoli, who has been president of Laura Ashley in the Americas for nearly a decade. The smocks, knee-length and sleeveless, were made from cotton drill — a heavyweight fabric similar to denim — usually in a striped print; young women wore them as fashion frocks.
By the late ’60s, though, the couple were creating longer and more graceful silhouettes. The new length was Bernard’s suggestion: They were, at heart, textile printers, so why not sell more cloth? With their high necks, full skirts, mutton sleeves and lace and ruffle adornments, these dresses, along with prim pin-tucked cotton blouses, lace-trimmed nightgowns and grosgrain-ribbon-tied hats, solidified the “Laura Ashley look.”
All of this arrived, as though she’d planned it this way, in time to be the perfect antidote to ’60s-era mod shifts and synthetic fabrics, and as many young hippies were rejecting the complications of urbanity in search of a simpler and more self-sufficient life. Martin Wood, the author of a coffee-table book on Ashley, has written that the designer was “adamant that the most important point about any brand was the emotion behind it,” and the primary feeling evoked by her “simple garments to wear at home,” as she described them, was nostalgia.
And yet, for all their implied conservatism, Laura Ashley dresses were also modern, and one might even say feminist: practical, easy to wash, unstructured around the waist — the sort of “rational” or “aesthetic” dresses the 19th-century textile designer, writer, artist and socialist William Morris, another famous purveyor of patterns, proposed as a response to boned corsets and bustles, and not so different from the loose floor-length gowns the suffragists wore.
The business flourished, somewhat ironically, in cities: The first shop selling only Laura Ashley products opened in London, at 23 Pelham Street in South Kensington, in 1968, and another, on Fulham Road, arrived the following year. At the brand’s height, the Fulham Road store, famous for its green marble facade, sold 4,000 dresses in a single week.
Princess Diana was always the brand’s most famous unofficial ambassador: standing next to David Bowie at a Live Aid concert in a mint green drop-waist ensemble with a polka dot sash; as a young, still unmarried kindergarten teacher in a diaphanous skirt, a child at her hip and another standing beside her. One reason for the popularity of the brand — and perhaps why the people’s princess favored it — was that the clothes, well made and substantial, were also modestly priced. That sense of solidity yet specialness was conferred by the green and white tag inside every piece that read “Made in Great Britain.”
In the 1980s, the company expanded into the home furnishings of my youth: bedspreads, upholstered furniture, draperies, wallpaper and ceramic tiles in tiny florals ideally arranged all together to create a matchy-matchy sanctuary. Ashley clearly favored a sweet, homespun vibe — “handmade patchworks, needleworks, rag rugs, lots of lace and white starched lines (together with old-fashioned smoothing irons) are all bliss to me,” she wrote in the introduction to “The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating” (1982). But perhaps, in addition to drawing inspiration from Welsh and English cottages, she was thinking of French country chateaus, since by the time of the book’s publication, she and Bernard had moved to France and purchased one.
Three years later, tragedy struck. On Sept. 8, 1985, Ashley fell down the stairs at her daughter Jane’s house in the Cotswolds, where she had celebrated her 60th birthday the day before. She went into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying nine days later, a mere two and a half months before the company’s first stock issuance.
At the time, Laura Ashley Ltd. was at its height, but Ashley herself was the soul of the business, and it soon began to founder. By 1990, Laura Ashley was in the red and, by 2003, it had shuttered all of its stores in the U.S. and Canada to focus on licensing and e-commerce. There were some pre-pandemic attempts to revive it: a capsule collection with Rag & Bone that featured baseball caps and men’s hoodies printed with sprigs of pink flowers; another with Urban Outfitters that, with pieces like an empire-waist minidress in a pink toile print and a quilted baby-doll frock bedecked with swans, felt like Victoriana passed through a Riot Grrrl filter.
But the brand, like so many others, has struggled during the last couple of years and went into administration (the British term for bankruptcy) in March 2020 (as a result, the 153 remaining Laura Ashley stores in the U.K. and Ireland were closed), before being acquired the following month by the investment firm Gordon Brothers, which has plans to “reignite Mrs. Ashley’s original vision,” as Ramez Toubassy, the former president of brands for Gordon Brothers, said at the time of the acquisition.
This week saw the release of a 15-piece collaboration between Laura Ashley and Batsheva, whose namesake dresses and blouses certainly nod to Ashley’s original vision (Laura’s son, Nick, once wrote to Hay to thank her for carrying on his mother’s legacy), but with more contemporary silhouettes and textiles, à la gold lamé, red flocked taffeta or navy tartan. For this collection, Hay used Laura Ashley archival floral prints and line drawings to create a series of cheerful, flouncy dresses, skirts and blouses that, with their layered patterns, neon flourishes and chic cuts, feel at once retro and current, and that are priced lower than her regular line. “I tried to make it as reasonable as possible,” Hay said, “as that was something I appreciated about Laura Ashley.”
In this way, and on account of the sheer number of wearers, there was always something populist about the brand. At the same time, of course, the British countryside idyll was traditionally a lifestyle reserved for a certain kind of person, namely someone white and Protestant. Designers like Hay, who draws on her Jewish heritage — her line was inspired, in part, by her Yiddish-speaking grandmother’s “frumpy New York aesthetic,” as she puts it — and Kika Vargas, Yuhan Wang and Sindiso Khumalo, who are all women of color, have found ways of subverting the aesthetic and its conventions and, in doing so, making it their own.
Khumalo, who is based in South Africa and references her Zulu heritage in her work with bright, sustainable fabrics, admires Ashley’s ability to “tell stories with her textiles.” For several collections now, Khumalo has been looking at portraiture from the late 1800s and early 1900s of Black women, including formerly enslaved African American women who had been freed and Black women in Europe, and notes that although their lives may have been very different from those of their white counterparts — the women Laura Ashley was referencing — aspects of their clothing, with “big, big, big shoulders and a lot of embroidery details,” Khumalo says, were often quite similar: “There’s an aesthetic of what people wear, and that goes beyond a specific racial group — it’s what society’s wearing at a time,” she says.
For her, fashion, with which one can excavate stories and details otherwise lost to history, is a “tool for activism, but also a tool to talk about the Black African experience.” The London-based Wang, who’s known for her ruched floral columns, was trained in traditional Chinese painting as a child and says she has spent hours “sketching historical relics” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like Khumalo, she also believes that looking to the past can be a way of moving forward: “My futurism is based on the way we were,” she tells me. “There are always things worth rethinking. That’s where the future comes from.”
These women’s designs are a reminder that objects of beauty and comfort should be available to everyone, and that these precarious, uncertain times might be making partial pioneers of many of us. The pandemic has caused a wave of city dwellers to light out for less populous locales, and others, quarantined at home, to LARP as frontierswomen in urban kitchens, baking cookies, fiddling with sourdough starters and canning their own food. Still others, weary of technology and its attendant distractions, are heading back to the land, or at least to a patch of it, in search of an alternative to our techno-dystopia.
Then, too, we have entered a period of inflation, high gas prices and supply chain disruptions; many are saying it feels like the ’70s — the heyday of the Laura Ashley dress and a decade of dark, anxious undertones — all over again. Who doesn’t want to wrap up in a quilted floral comforter, collapse on the couch and watch “Little House on the Prairie” right about now? It may be this sense, that the world is currently perilous, that’s ultimately driving the popularity of the prairie look: You can wear one of these pragmatic, pretty dresses in your escapist fantasies, but also in your actual life: to a dinner, to a protest, to sit on the floor and play with a toddler. They are also timeless in that they’re unlikely to go out of style by next season — after all, they’ve been in style, more or less, since the mid-1800s.