For the past month I have been working in parallel on two very different exhibits, Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine, a celebration of the designer at the Fashion Museum in Bath (see photo), and an installation at Phillips auction house in London showcasing the talents of the latest graduates of the School of Material at the RCA (story to follow). And there couldn’t be more of a contrast in the outcome.
Here’s a look at the Laura Ashley show that was opened earlier this month by Felicity Green, the legendary fashion editor of the Daily Mirror in the 1960s and 1970s. It was Green’s commentary from the January 1st 1970 edition of the newspaper, where she described the Laura Ashley look as ‘soft-core femininity’ and ‘Victorian type demureness’, that early on defined the focus of the show: the trademark floor sweeping, demure dresses that struck a chord with women who wished to escape the ills of the modern world as one decade collided with another. The curation (conceived with Rosemary Harden) and staging of the show (designed in association with Mark Clarke) is intentionally intimate and unpretentious, inspired by the myriad memories of the many women who have shared their stories and frocks with the Fashion Museum. “I remember rails and rails of dresses, mainly full length, and being so excited to try them on,” is how Jacqueline Clarke remembers the Laura Ashley experience at the designers shop in Lothian Road, Edinburgh. “I loved the prints and subtle colours, the historical and romantic feel of the styles,” says Penelope Ruddock. The show is indeed a nostalgia fest for anyone who wanted to be Julie Christie in Far From The Madding Crowd or Doctor Zhivago, but more than that it is a true inspiration for anyone interested in colour and pattern. The dazzling array and delicate drift of hues is quite astounding – that these offbeat, often indefinable shades were the result of the dye vats not being washed out between batches, only underscores the artlessness of genius. “I had to do something that was completely different,” said Mrs Ashley matter-of-factly when asked to define her original design inspiration. “I knew in my heart…most people wanted to raise families, have gardens, and live life as nicely as they can. They don’t want to go out to nightclubs every night and get absolutely blotto.” As she adroitly observed in 1975: “People love the idea of dressing up in the sort of clothes you might find in an old trunk.” And they still do. “We’ve always been fans,” says Benjamin Kirchhoff of design duo Meadham Kirchhoff, the poster boys of avant-garde British fashion, who continue the quixotic quest for perfection in an imperfect world.
Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine, Fashion Museum, Bath runs until 26 August 2013. The show then transfers to The Bowes Museum, County Durham, 13 September 2013 – 5 January 2014.
A 48page colour catalogue accompanies the exhibition.