Bless Bookhound, who whilst reading the Laura Ashley post yesterday started rummaging in his wallet.
Thinking a £20 note was heading my way I had to pretend to be thrilled (actually I was) when out came this picture with a flourish...
September 11th 1976, the green LA pinafore dress and pin-tucked blouse (me that is) and us at our evening wedding reception, he'd kept it all these years, and a little coincidence... like Laura and Bernard Ashely we too were married in Wallington in Surrey. My recent Laura Ashley revival had been sparked by my Lucy Boston revival which had reminded me of patchwork days of yore, English piecing over papers, and how that all began with finding the bags of fabric offcuts for sale in the Laura Ashley shop in Sloane Street. Your fascinating comments yesterday, and as always thank you for them, made me realise quite how much LA featured in so many of our lives.
I now learn, from Anne Sebba's book, Laura Ashley - A Life By Design that the patchwork peices were a product of Laura Ashley's own love of thrift coupled with her dismay at seeing huge bonfires of unusable fabric in the fields surrounding the factory in Carno, in Wales. In deciding to sell the remnants, something of a monster was created...
'The patchwork pieces saga was not one that would quietly die. It represented for Laura thrift, history, craft, usefulness, prevention of idleness and a host of other qualities which her childhood and subsequent work at the WI had encouraged her to prize.'
Preparation of the packs kept the needy outworkers employed but were never economically viable, yet hugely popular with the buying public...who knows I might even have been one of those who on delivery day 'would fight wildly for them.'
But this is to jump into the LA story many years on...and for the record LA or Mrs Ashley is what Laura Ashley expected to be called by all those she worked with, never just Laura.
From predictably humble beginnings, the Welsh mining stock of Merthyr Tydfil, emerges the young Laura Mountney ...gentle, unassuming and seemingly pliable who meets the wild, headstrong and quick-tempered Bernard Ashley thus invoking the age-old theory of opposites attract. The couple fall in love and are married in 1949 quickly settling into the post-war world of austerity Britain, with Laura determined to be the 'perfect' wife... subserviant to her husband whilst holding down a job as a secretary in the handicrafts department at WI headquarters, but still allowing time for her to have dinner on the table and the housework done invisibly. Bernard meanwhile hankered after the life of a writer though had to make do with work at an investment trust in the City.
The now legendary first venture into clothing, the printed headscarves created at a kitchen table after seeing Audrey Hepburn wearing one in the film Roman Holiday, the move into tea towels and eventually into dresses for which they printed their own fabric, followed by shops and eventually a global empire all pans out in Anne Sebba's book to the backdrop of the couple's often tempestuous relationship. As a designer LA was non-pareil, scouring museums, books, catalogues and old houses for her patterns and somehow tapping into and sustaining an entire zeitgeist almost of her own creation....may be this is why we wore them...
'Part of the attraction of shopping at 'Laura Ashley was finding uniquely eccentric clothes. The peasant look was a potent image, but there were others. The magic was being able to step into a 'Laura Ashley' dress and imagine you had found something out of a dressing-up box. You had put on much more than a dress, there was such a vivid aura of theatre and drama surrounding it all...'
As an employer LA could be an encourager, a listener and a delegator, but she was equally capable of shunning advice and suggestions from staff and taking umbrage when an unapproved design seemed to have slipped through into production and onto the shop floor. It was not unknown for LA to be seen leaving a shop laden with armfuls of the offending dresses. There is no doubt that Bernard's often wreckless 'can do' mentality, his ingenious methods and his undaunted spirit frequently exposed him as a bully, whilst Laura could be stubborn and controlling, often digging her heels in and refusing to be moved or advised on a decision or an idea. However, it is hard to get past the fact that Bernard, with little regard for his wife's sensibilities, would publicly humiliate her and she would meekly accept it without complaint...it's just how it was, but it doesn't sit easily in the grand scheme of things, and all those images of a bucolic, carefree and idyllic rural style that the clothes conveyed. Anne Sebba heads up one chapter 'Anguish and Authenticity' which sums up the dichotomy and the dilemma perfectly.
Safe to say for many years this explosive and often wreckless business combination worked like a dream, until growing like the proverbial topsy the company started to become a victim of its own sucess. Formalities like accountancy and board meetings had to be addressed and things put on a proper business footing. LA hated and avoided it, Bernard eventually embraced it all as a necessity, but with it came wealth and string of beautiful houses, and happiness and stability of sorts as long as Laura continued to indulge Bernard's whims and his short temper. In her eyes he could do no wrong.
In the midst of it all came four children whose fortunes and futures seemed mixed, sometimes settled and happy at other times estranged and confused, and with parents who for some time were tax exiles living in France meaning contact was often intermittent....weddings were missed.
Of course the tragedy loomed and I could hardly bear to read of LA's return visit to the UK for her 60th birthday to be spent quietly at her daughter's home in the Cotswolds, and the fatal fall down the stairs that night. Looking back I am trying to recall the sense of shock I must have felt on hearing the news, I was a devotee after all, but I was two days away from giving birth to the Gamekeeper, then overdue, and I suspect I was preoccupied with it all...and ironing the Laura Ashley nightdress that I am wearing in all the photos.
Anne Sebba's book made for fascinating reading, perhaps the more so because part of me feels personally invested in this moment in fashion history (that's a bit scary) and the book is recently republished by Faber Finds too so readily available, though mine was a 1p copy from You Know Where. First published in 1990 so I have little idea of the history of the company since then, though I will say that a recent visit to a Laura Ashley shop left me confused and uncertain about any sense of corporate style or clothing image. Gone was the spacious rather classy look that the shops had developed in recent years, now rack after rack of disparate garments and no room to move gave it the feel of a rather overcluttered bazaar... not so different to the old days then.