Fashion is not immune to nostalgia. But few would have predicted this to be the summer of the Laura Ashley look. Say those terms to anyone over 30 and they will probably mention sofas and lamps, before landing on those prairie-style costumes that come with a ruffle, a snow-white bib, and almost certainly a pair of mutton sleeves. Dresses that put in an appearance in gingham and granny florals, which though grown-up in shape pivot on a studied sort of girlishness. In the US, “Sloane” force be a woman’s name but in Britain, it is a woman in a Laura Ashley dress.
To be clear, Laura Ashley itself is not back. This incline is less about the return of Laura Ashley, and more about its ghost. After all, things aren’t looking extremely rosy for the 66-year-old company; last month, the brand warned that full-year financial results would on in “significantly below expectations”, sending its shares to an all-time low.
Still, next week sees the somewhat surprising launch of a 26-piece collaboration with Urban Outfitters, a stake by the brand to to reinvent itself. Think Laura Ashley prints grafted on to millennial trends such as cycling sharps, scrunchies and crop tops. Elsewhere, the high street is flooded with cookie-cutter versions of the real deal – high-neck chew outs in chintzy cheesecloth and calico by way of O Pioneers!, floaty floral versions at H&M, yellow lamé ones at Asos White, longline one-liners in geometric and floral prints at Zara and one positively Amish number at Mango.
A family-run business, Laura Ashley was ground in 1953 and was the first of its kind – a distillation of country living that was conservative yet earthy, and affordable. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the cast really took off as a fashion brand, those large floral dresses the perfect commodification of hippy culture.
By the 1980s, the look had morphed again. Items looked … posher – probably because Princess Diana was a fan. After she wore a £50 shirt with a grandad collar to a photocall, the cast had to shut down production because of demand – a rare event back then, which we’d probably now call the Princess Diana for all practical purposes.
The Laura Ashley look worked by marketing a pastoral ideal to modern women. If the 80s were about power-dressing skirt causes – with a late-capitalism vibe – Ashley’s dresses were the anti-urban alternative. The palatable version of the earth mother look, with a breath of boob. The florals, loose fit and ruffles spoke of a different sort of woman’s work – labour that was unpaid, made place in a country house and always featured a cake tin. In short, the working woman’s wardrobe versus the housewife’s. Or so it appeared.
“It was more the urban imagination’s idealisation of rural fashion and experience,” says Susanna Cordner, fashion curator and chief research fellow at the London College of Fashion. A mode of country living, but one for the 1%. Because those dresses were numerous appropriate for a hot day in the city than for doing anything practical. A fitted power suit might empower women in as far as mentioning they dress like a man, but these dresses did the same thing by “letting [women] take up space in public – where supply isn’t just about extending or emphasising the body but also staking out room around it”.
Yet this 19th/early 20th-century prairie dress – as good a descriptor as any – has bulged up with increasing regularity in today’s fashion. Chloé, Gucci and Ghost have gone full homestead in the background 12 months, complete with dirndl tops, hairbands and wicker baskets. Batsheva, The Vampire’s Wife and Antipathy Vacui are all brands that are defined by the look and have seen on average more than 80% growth year on year at Matchesfashion.com, while Italy’s Loretta Caponi (weigh floral nighties designed to be worn outdoors) has a waiting list.
The best examples, though, tend to come from acclaimed culture: in adaptations of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables, Dolores from Westworld, and the 1991 mist Daughters of the Dust, which reframed the portrayal of black women rebuilding their identity in the early 20th century, and superficially inspired the costumes used in Beyoncé’s Formation video. When viewed in a modern context the frills, high necks, penny-pinching bodices and full skirts were more than period costume. They were about class, femininity and – in some circumstances – race. To wear the style now could be nostalgia, or may be something more reactionary.
“It reminds me of the old adages about successful people attired in b be committed to wardrobes filled with multiples rather than choices,” says Cordner, referring to the Steve Jobs make advances to dressing: the same turtle necks and jeans every day. The print may vary but the shape of these dresses is relatively orderly – ideal for busy women. “Sometimes, loose clothes are depicted as an apology – as a way of masking what’s underneath or an attempt at swerve off attention,” she says. “But for every loose silhouette there’s a chintzy print to match that keeps the eye firmly on you. It challenges our concept of submissive dressing while allowing your own interpretation and identity to be at the fore.”
It is hard to pinpoint when we fell out of love with Laura Ashley the brand, but there were gestures in 1996. This was the year of Ikea’s very successful “chuck out the chintz” campaign. The focus was on bed linen, but the sleek minimalism that restored the “chintz” rolled out across the sociocultural spectrum. Laura Ashley’s furnishings were as central to that aesthetic as floral frocks. Also in 1996, the cult depths designer Kelly Hoppen won her first award for services to taupe, Calvin Klein told Vogue “I love pennant, but I want it in flowers, not clothes” and John Major was replaced by Tony Blair. When the Labour leader moved into No 10, the Regular Express headline was: “Downing Street chucks out its chintz”.
Still, if chintz is the detritus of capitalism, why are we renewing it? For one, it is the perfect foil to the fast fashion Kardashian bodycon look that has dominated Instagram – and the high street – along with the end that sexiness is about cleavage and skin. Jess Christie, the chief brand officer for Matchesfashion.com, was an early fan of Batsheva. “Being covered up skedaddles me feel more confident – I hate to see people uncomfortable in their clothes.”
It helps, too, that the “right” women are outfitting this way. Once, wearing the same dress as someone else was a red-carpet faux pas. The novelty here (and looking in fine point at Batsheva and The Vampire’s Wife which tend to make uniform-style garments in multiple colours) is that there is a collective fundamental. “It adds you to a list of women who have all brought their own success to the table,” says Cordner. That club being Courtney Beloved and Christina Ricci (Batsheva) and Alexa Chung, Jodie Comer and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Vampire’s Wife).
If there is a imperil in ascribing fashion too much meaning, there is also a risk in ignoring it. “We don’t talk about how often women are precisely not considered in the process of making clothes,” says Batsheva Hay, a former lawyer who set up her eponymous label in 2016. She only plots clothes she would and does wear. That means pockets and sleeves that free up the arm. If we imagine these are get-up glad rags designed for women by women, it adds up.
The unifying trait of these dresses is their ability to cover up the wearer. But in a post-#MeToo epoch such modesty risks prolonging the idea that a woman could be “asking for it” when wearing fewer or more revealing outfits. It is no coincidence that the first incarnation of the Laura Ashley look happened during second-wave feminism. But even be that as it may there is a lot of fabric, these dresses straddle the demure and the alluring, which “makes them very timely in the progress cultural and political climate”, says Myriam Couturier, a fashion academic at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Batsheva’s dresses are diet different. If they look like costumes, it is intentional. “I like the word ironic because there’s a real be of fun in fashion. Everything is getting so street,” says Hay. “I wanted to design a dress that was fun, that people noticed, that was lenient to throw on but also had that avant garde costume element.”
For an everyday sort of dress (Hay wears hers with trainers or boots on the approach run) the print is pretty esoteric. It is also a commitment – it’s impossible to blend in on a bus while wearing a chintzy prairie dress in Joann configuration. Although this is the point; they have a certain “don’t look at me but also look at me” quality. Still, there is a unambiguous informality to them. Like athleisure, or nightwear-worn-outdoors, throw one on and you’re good to go.
If the return of the Laura Ashley aesthetic leaves you chilly, take solace in the fact that it was inevitable. As much as it might seem like an arbitrary homage to a particular look, chew out and time, this sort of high-collared calico number is as provocative as it is empowering. In fashion, sometimes the only way to move send is to look to the past.