Laura Ashley – Bowes Museum

This is a talk I gave in November 2013 at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, to accompany the Laura Ashley retrospective exhibition held there. That’s now finished, but my Laura Ashley minidress is still on show in the costume gallery. Sadly, I haven’t a photo of it to add to this post, so I can only suggest a visit to the Museum if you’d like to know exactly what it looks like.

I can reproduce the talk, but not the very good tea and scones that went with it.  Sorry about that!

It is often said that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t there.

I remember them very well – and I most definitely was there.

Only I was of the generation that came of age in the early Sixties. We were touched by the ferment that came to a head later in the decade, we were aware of the breaking down of barriers, the questioning of authority, the sense of hope, the conviction that anything was possible. Lady Chatterley’s Lover had not long been published, the Profumo affair had brought the established order into disrepute, and ‘That Was The Week That Was’ helped us to laugh at those we had once seen as our betters. A new rock group called the Beatles was  attracting attention. And in fashion, simple styles and short skirts had replaced the formal tailored fashions of the 1950s.

But homosexuality was still a crime; the pill was just becoming available, but usually only to married women; an unmarried girl getting pregnant faced the stark choice between a dangerous and illegal back-street abortion, giving up the baby for adoption, or marrying the father, however unsuitable. And married women had to have their husband’s permission for any major financial transaction. Any income they earned was regarded for tax purposes as part of their husband’s income.

So though huge changes were on the way, and the days of flower power and rock festivals and drugs were just around the corner, we were, I think, more serious-minded and more socially conscious than the Baby-Boomers proper who succeeded us.

I went to a university reunion some years ago and realised that nearly all my peers had gone in for worthy careers, as teachers, social workers and such like. As a published writer, I seemed suddenly very exotic, which was an odd sensation.

My generation were still touched by our parents’ experience of war and by the austerity  that followed it. Even at my academic Girls’ Grammar School we were not only taught proper cookery, but also serious needlework, so we often made our own clothes. This was partly because ready-made clothes were expensive – cheap clothes made in Far Eastern sweatshops were something for the future. If you lived on a student grant and wanted the latest minidress you more or less had to make in yourself in those early years of the Sixties.

So when I wanted a new garment, I sewed. At home I had access to my mother’s sewing machine. Away at university, it was a case of hand-sewing everything. So I did.

I was an enthusiastic reader of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, and delighted by Audrey Hepburn in the film ‘War and Peace’ (I so wanted to look like her!). I loved the dresses associated with that period, with their simple lines and high waists. Many of the early minidresses had a Regency look about them – though their short skirts would have shocked even the most decadent of Regency women.

So I bought a pattern for one in that style and simply made it several times over in different fabrics. I made the odd dress for friends too, and I even toyed with the idea of doing this for money.

But fortunately I realised I just wasn’t good enough – not sufficiently skilled in needlework or enough of a perfectionist, and lacking any imagination for designing dresses.

But there was certainly something in the air around that time. Other people, who were good enough, who had skill and flair and an eye for design and a sense of what would sell, were making clothes on kitchen tables and setting up small boutiques, designing garments that threw over all the classic styles of the Fifties for new and exciting shapes and fabrics – and they were affordable clothes, even for a student on a grant.

IN 1965 I was twenty one and had just graduated from the University of Sussex, where I then embarked on a one-year MA course. I lodged with two friends in the little town of Lewes – a pretty place, with a castle and some impressive annual Bonfire Night celebrations.

We rented a tiny terraced flint-fronted cottage in Sun Street, which shortly afterwards was demolished to make way for a new bypass.

One thing I remember – in the kitchen was a set of oddly-shaped crockery with a striking design, which we thought was hideously ugly and so duly consigned to the back of the cupboard, in favour of our assortment of Woolworths crockery. I realise now, looking back, that it was almost certainly a Clarice Cliff teaset,  which would become extremely valuable. I do wonder what became of it.

Anyway, Lewes was the sort of town where one of those new boutiques was likely to be set up, and sure enough, one day, walking along the High Street, I spotted a small shop with a rail of dresses hanging outside. I stopped to look, and my eye was caught by the blue minidress which is now in the exhibition. I liked the colour and the puffed sleeves that were an unusual feature at the time (hinting just a little at what was to come, I suppose). But I think it was the pattern on the fabric that really attracted me. I still think it’s very pretty, more intricate and I suppose more ‘feminine’ than the bold geometric designs that predominated at the time.

It was in my size, and affordable (though I really can’t remember what it cost – I only know I wouldn’t have bought it if it had been too expensive. This was well before credit cards were in everyday use, and bank managers frowned on student overdrafts). The label inside said it was made by Laura Ashley, but that meant nothing to me. I’d never heard of her.

Of course, it wasn’t long before everyone had heard of her.

But meanwhile, I wore my dress, at least when the weather wasn’t too hot. With its high neck and puffed sleeves, it wasn’t really comfortable on very hot days, though in cooler weather it needed tights with it to be warm enough.

Incidentally, I do remember very well the joy of those first pairs of tights. People think of short skirts as somehow liberating, but when they first came on the scene they didn’t really feel like that for the more anxious among us. There was the constant worry about whether your stocking tops were showing, So tights were a truly liberating innovation.

In the autumn of 1966 I moved north, to Durham University, to do the one-year Diploma in Education that in those days turned graduates into qualified teachers (though the best thing I did for the education system was to leave it as soon as possible).

And it was there I met my husband, who was doing the same course. He remembers me wearing that Laura Ashley minidress, though he doesn’t seem ever to have taken a photo of me wearing it, sadly. Most photos at that time were still black and white, and we didn’t take many of them anyway.

I was still sometimes making clothes. I hand-stitched a pale blue needlecord shirt for my husband-to-be with great devotion, and when we married in 1968 I made my own wedding dress, using a Vogue designer pattern. Once again it had that high-waisted style I liked so much. It too has now found a home at the Bowes Museum.

Then in the early Seventies our children arrived and I turned to Clothkits for help in dressing them – it was dressmaking made easy, I suppose. Those early Clothkits designs had wonderful strong colours – there was none of this ubiquitous pink for girls or army-style camouflage gear for boys in those days. Both sexes wore the same colours and sometimes identical items of clothing.

But by now Laura Ashley was everywhere and her style was influencing much of what we wore, even if we didn’t actually buy her label. And this style was nothing like my little minidress, apart from the prettiness of the fabric design.

I loved the long skirts we wore then – they were comfortable, pretty, and covered up a multitude of blemishes, as well as making one feel very romantic.

I also liked the way the Laura Ashley style didn’t, on the whole, go in for very low necklines, which is something I find difficult about many of the clothes in the shops these days. Showing a lot of cleavage is not a good look on a mature woman like myself, with a substantial bosom.

If I’d been a bit better off I would certainly have bought more clothes by Laura Ashley, but when you’ve young children, not much money and few occasions when you need to dress up, then some things have to be sacrificed. I did a fair bit of window shopping when I came across one of her shops, and browsed the catalogue that fell regularly onto the doormat, but her clothes were no longer the cheapest option.

When I look back, I think she had an influence on the spirit of those years in the early Seventies. but she herself must also have been affected by what was in the air – the nostalgia for days gone by and for a lost rural way of life; the search for greater simplicity in the way people lived; and the beginnings of the ecology movement, concerned for the health of the environment.

There were films that tapped into that mood, such as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (remember Katharine Ross on that bicycle, singing ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’? She could almost have been dressed by Laura Ashley!)

There were restaurants and cafés springing up alongside the new boutiques, run by enthusiastic amateurs and serving fresh, home-cooked foods. And there was the new enthusiasm for organic, grow-your-own produce, which fed into television programmes like ‘The Good Life’ (incidentally, it was in 1973 that an aunt and uncle of mine set up an organic smallholding which they’re still running well into their 90s!)

There was the Early Music movement, which revived long-forgotten melodies and instruments; and the re-enactment societies that relived ancient battles.

Cover picture by kind permission of Chris Collingwood

Cover picture by kind permission of Chris Collingwood

It may be that I was more aware of these things at the time, as I was writing a novel set during the Civil War [an early version of ‘Disordered Land’],  but certainly they seem to have bloomed and flourished in those years. I remember visiting York to do some research about the siege of York in 1644, and there were ‘Cavaliers’ wandering the streets, giving a truly authentic atmosphere!

I wonder in fact if the arrival on the scene of Laura Ashley’s nostalgic dresses made men too yearn for something a bit more colourful than conventional menswear – hence the enthusiasm for dressing up in silk coats and lace. But then the rock singers of the time were doing just that as well. There must have been few men of any age at the time who didn’t sometimes wear a floral shirt.

So, being part of this mood, I went over to long skirts myself – which as an added bonus helped to give me some idea of what my female characters must have felt like as they went about their day-to-day lives.

My minidress was consigned to a box in the loft.

I did buy other Laura Ashley garments from time to time – a white high-necked Edwardian style blouse, and another with a ruffled v-neck that I still sometimes wear for Choir concerts; and two pairs of cotton trousers, which I wore again this summer.

Then we moved house, to the edge of Weardale, to live a bit of the Good Life ourselves, and I forgot all about the blue dress.

Until, in 2006, we demolished our collapsing garden shed and in the pre-demolition clear-out the dress reappeared in a battered dusty box among the garden tools and chicken feeders and plant pots. It was still in reasonable condition, surprisingly.

The shed's last moments...

The shed’s last moments…

But though it was labelled size 14, my exact size, there was no way I could get into it any longer, which just goes to show that sizing has been adjusted to take account of the fact that we’re all getting bigger. Our daughter, seeing the dress for the first time in her life, was appalled, the way daughters are. Looking at the brevity of the skirt, she exclaimed in horror, as if confronted by a nightmare vision: ‘You never wore that, Mum!’

To be quite honest, looking at it again myself, I am struck by how very short it is! I’m a bit wary these days of anything even an inch above the knee.

Then in 2007 we moved house again, to the edge of Durham city, and it was then that I donated the dress to the Bowes museum. It’s fun showing it off to friends when we take them there.

But I haven’t yet severed all connection with Laura Ashley. The clothes sold by the stores no longer have that utterly distinctive look, the pretty fabrics, long skirts, modest necklines. In fact they’re much like the clothes in any other store.

But I live ten minutes walk from the Durham branch, which has frequent sales, so I pop in now and then. While wondering what to wear for this afternoon’s talk, I found a dress I loved – but it was eye-wateringly expensive, and for once there was no sale in progress. I asked the assistant if perhaps they had a sale coming up. She wasn’t sure – but pointed out that if I could find a copy of the current issue of ‘Hello’ magazine, they had an offer of 25% off any Laura Ashley garment. She put the dress by while we rushed out to buy a copy of ‘Hello’ (not my usual reading, I have to say) and the dress was mine – an example of excellent salesmanship, I’d say.

IMG_3161This is the dress, just to show that Laura Ashley still plays a part in my life.

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