17 August 2013

‘Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine’ in Bath

Almost a year ago a post appeared here full of admiration for Stephen Bayley. In passing, I mentioned Bayley’s connection with Terence Conran and that a set of Habitat catalogues from 1971 to 1988, which I had just given away, were “invaluable references for period set designs – the way we lived then”. Now I’ve had a reminder of the way girls dressed then.

I have to admit that Bath’s Fashion Museum has never tempted me to enter (despite its free admission for Art Fund members) but I’m glad I was induced to see Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine before it closes on 26 August. The exhibition marks the coincidence in 2013 of the Museum’s 50th anniversary and the Laura Ashley company’s 60th.  Bath was also the location of one of the first shops that Laura Ashley opened outside London. 

What can a mere male eye discern? Well, there are lots of frocks in the styles that made Laura Ashley so successful about 40 years ago, some donated by their original owners together with anecdotes about their purchase. Interestingly many of the donors had bought them as university students at a time when less than 15% of their age group went to university and women were in the minority. And while it has to be admitted that these ladies may no longer be able to slip into (or out of) these heirlooms of their salad days, the dress sizings of that time are sad evidence of the UK’s current obesity epidemic. A reminder of which came in the substantial forms of the three young women, all born well after the Ashley era, who barged past me in the Museum café shortly afterwards.

I well remember being encouraged to go to Laura Ashley’s Fulham Road shop (described above) - upstairs, not the basement.  I certainly wouldn’t have forgotten “a seething, hot and bothered mass of partially-clothed young women” as Joan Gould recalls.

After Bath, the exhibition travels to the opposite end of the country and will be at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham in NE England from 21 September to 5 January 2014.

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