Laura Ashley: How A Global Empire Started At The Kitchen Table

Laura Ashley is synonymous with middle-class-English flowery frocks. Generally not so cool, mumsy style, baggy arm dresses you often see an aunt wearing in 1970’s or 80’s family christening photos. They made bridesmaid dresses too with even baggier arms. The fashion police didn’t bat an eye. Hard to believe I know.

The Laura Ashley story… 

There’s a fine line between chic and frumpy and to be honest, I think Laura Ashley usually falls into the latter camp. Brushing aside prejudice however, the Laura Ashley phenomenon is a pretty inspiring story for those of us who’d love to be able to turn our passion for creativity or a hobby into something commercial.

Laura Ashley turned an interest in fashion and fabric into a global empire starting with head scarfs made by screen press. Working on the top of her kitchen table, she began making mats, napkins and tea towels from traditional patterns (what we call chinze today) which she would carry around London trying to sell to various stores.

Things took off and this was the start of a cottage industry. She recruited house wives with some spare time and in return for “pin money” they would make collars and cuffs. Bundles of clothes would be picked up and taken to a factory where they assembled the bits and pieces into dresses designed “to be warn at home”.

Her aim was to create clothing which women would be equally comfortable wearing at home looking after the children or cooking supper for their husbands in.  This led to a listing in John Lewis in the early 1970’s and by the mid 70’s a chain of stores across Europe.  Some achievement.

Laura sadly died in 1985, aged 60, after she fell down the stairs at her daughters home in the Cotswolds.  It was a tragic accident. By then she employed 4,000 women, had expanded into furnishings and was selling her brand in nearly 5,000 stores worldwide.

Fast forward to today…. 

Rootle around in your old aunties attic trunks and you’re likely to find a few dusty moth-eaten Laura Ashley numbers. Despite being slightly smelly, there may well be life in them. I hasten to say they are vintage but that’s my misplaced vintage snobbery talking. According to unwritten vintage code, anything made more than 30 years prior can be vintage so the below dress I picked up for £7.50 at St. Margaret’s Hospice charity shop in Glastonbury last week is borderline. My Mum and I guess it’s early 90’s.


What I particularly like about the dress is that the sleeves have been tailored to taper at the wrist which emphasizes the iconic puffy sleeves.  It’s also got a sweetheart neckline which you don’t see too often now.


It’s had a mixed response the one time I’ve worn it and if I am honest I didn’t feel 100% comfortable in it. I want it to look nice because I like the colours, pattern and detail but the shape isn’t flattering even though it’s a size 10. This is one dress I reckon will go to my charity vintage clothes sale in aid of Macmillan in 2013. Details of this event to follow!