Real women stay at home

Anne Hollander

  • Laura Ashley: A Life by Design by Anne Sebba
    Weidenfeld, 207 pp, £15.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 297 81044 8

The rise of Laura Ashley seems like the right accompaniment to the rise of contemporary feminism, following her initial vogue in the radical climate of the Sixties. The first move was back to natural fabrics and basic shapes; and then, just as women were trying to get out of the kitchen and down off the pedestal, she moved on to a theatricalised restoration of The Angel in the House, rural version, in all her printed-cotton glory. It was an inspired idea that was bound to succeed, especially when backed up by Laura Ashley’s own desire to live up to the domestic ideal herself while simultaneously reaping the profits of a business.

To accomplish this double manoeuvre, as we learn from Anne Sebba’s book, she had to find a man who would not only be a clever business partner but a dominating sort of husband, for whom she could play The Angel while managing refractory children household and business accounts, creative projects and inner stress; and for whom she could keep alive the strong sexual appeal of the character.

Gentle Laura Mountney apparently found a perfect mate in explosive Bernard Ashley, who had a native genius for engineering as well as for business, and an admiration for Hemingway’s ideals of masculinity. This last undoubtedly helped him play his part opposite tough but submissive Laura, the Steel Magnolia of Wales. While the two of them were promoting their small printed fabric business into a famous source of old-fashioned fashion, their own Victorian marriage gave underlying substance to the erotic image their product conveyed. With restrained patterns and decorous concealment, Laura Ashley clothes suggest the steamy, creamy responsiveness of Tess Durbyfield and Hettie Sorrel, churning butter while waiting for fate to find them underneath their tucks and ruffles. The firm got a splendid boost when the milk-maidenly Lady Diana Spencer’s rich charms were photographed showing through a windblown and backlit Laura Ashley skirt, just on the eve of her transformation into Princess-of-Wales-elect.

The Laura Ashley style of dress offered sharp visual contrast to the simple tailored classics of modern women’s fashion, the clothes which represent the welcome changes brought about in women’s lives since the days when long voluminous dresses were the only clothes they knew. The Laura Ashley promotional photographs showing ruffled girls surrounded by antique rustic objects failed to remind customers that along with the wearing of floor-length petticoats trimmed with miles of flounces went the strong likelihood of an early death in childbirth and no likelihood of an early right to vote.

But that was beside the point. Laura Ashley clothes entered the fashion scene in the late Sixties as one choice among many, offering girls a timely historical look just when fashion was shifting away from its old socially-determined aims and creating a public fancy-dress party all might attend. The new idea, sparked by youthful anarchism, was to reconsider fashion as a perpetual carnival where all classes, occupations, sexes and ages might mingle behind a façade of signs and portents deliberately confected for amusement or shock value. Nasty references and pleasing conceits were alike wrenched out of context and forced into the ironic mode. Gone were all the old notions of suitability and respectability; and in total eclipse were the ideals of modern elegance that had been forged between the wars, in the first wave of respect for modern design and disrespect for Victorianism.

In the new perverse fashion climate, to accompany various experiments in Science Fictiony garb, the past was raided for romantic sartorial effects with the express desire to elevate them by a sort of adoring mockery. The thrift shops disgorged three generations of dead rags now free to revive and combine wittily with new motifs. At social gatherings, pirates and other sorts of romantic criminal rubbed shoulders with migrant workers and lumberjacks, gypsies and sorceresses, Edwardian dandies and Belle Epoque harlots in ratty feather boas, and sometimes with two or three such characters combined in the one person. The Hardyesque flavours promulgated by Laura Ashley clothes in the late Sixties and early Seventies made fine seasoning for the mixture and blended well with everything else.

But, with certain modifications, the Laura Ashley style has survived like nothing else from that feverish period (except blue jeans, but that is a separate story). Anne Sebba’s biography describes the zeal and will-power which went into its creation, the conviction behind the fast-developing Laura Ashley enterprise which has kept the high-necked, full-skirted, printed-cotton feminine mode free of the ironies and blasphemies of fashion, and preserved it intact until the present moment and probably for the future. It was the high-necked, printed-cotton soul of Laura Ashley herself, we are led to believe, that gave the style its force, and eventually aroused echoes in the souls of millions of women everywhere – readers of Jane Austen and the Brontës as well as of Hardy and George Eliot, viewers of classic American Westerns along with readers of Little Women. Her own 19th-century sense of things seems to have had no trace of modern cynicism or distancing irony to dull its edge, or any corrupting doubt to cloud her vision.

In her family life, she wanted the props and supporting characters to have the correct period flavour. Her husband fell in with her views from the start, but her children had to bear their part, willing or no. She made one of her sons wear a cap when he went to school, and doff it to his elders, although the school didn’t require caps; and she only let him stop when she learned that the other kids tormented him mercilessly. Amazingly she didn’t think beforehand that they might. Formal education itself was of little interest to Laura Ashley, perhaps even something she despised for getting in the way of success in business and of a ruthlessly romantic programme for life. Books were for practical instruction: she learned to milk a cow from a book, and a great many other things, including facts about the printing of fabric.

The puritanical, chapel-going atmosphere of her grandparents’ home in Wales had educated her perfectly for the role of strong and virtuous woman, whose immovable convictions are inwardly supported not by schooled intellect but by faith, and who gets her own way through skill in domestic and sexual politics. For such a fierce matriarch and potent wife, a business would be an irrelevance, something that she might do when her obedient children were in bed, domestic tasks were done, and her virile husband did not claim her attention; and indeed she seems to have thought of her burgeoning business as a family, in order to feel all right about it. In her strong view, perennially expressed in the relentlessly period-flavour products, real women stay at home, preferably in the country, and all their real work is there. They do not go to the office, the plant, the mine – nor, of course, the university. Maybe they study the classics by lamplight; and maybe they do a bit of sewing to make a little extra money.

So she would wear an apron at home, even when she had long since given up cooking, to show she was in charge of the household; and she would carry perpetually unfinished needlework around with her on international jet flights; and she would deal with her business associates as if she were the mistress of a large house where every detail was a matter of her personal domestic pride, and they were all resident nieces and nephews obliged to maintain the family honour by following her wishes exactly. The business could not properly grow to keep up with its own success nor with current commercial methods unless she yielded her Victorian housekeeper’s sway; and her husband and son eventually took over, along with other professionals whom she continued to regard with total disfavour.

About the distinctive quality of the designs, for both the prints and the garments, she was unerringly right. Women all over the world wear Laura Ashley clothes not just at home in the country but to work in the office, the bank, the shop and the university, women who may have neither husbands nor children nor country houses, who come back at night to rented urban flats where they can catch up on their paperwork amid Laura Ashley curtains and cushions. The note she sounded apparently strikes more deeply than the surface nostalgia of the Sixties; it accords with a female self-respect founded on notions of integrity which need have nothing to do with traditional domestic life. The fully-fashioned skirts, the richly shirred ruffles, the truly beautiful small prints and the pure cotton cloth connote the lack of compromise about materials and details which appeals to intelligent women without making reference to masculine standards. Unlike much badly conceived and badly-made feminine frippery, these women’s clothes do not make conventional men’s clothes look honest by contrast. They are honest themselves, and look suitable for honest women.

The rise of feminism has only made them more attractive, since they have the look of transcending fashion, of suggesting enduring female values without any incidental sexist drawbacks. Long printed cotton skirts, after all, were worn by some of the greatest feminists of the last century, and by hosts of independent-minded women in the past three centuries – some Household Angels, some not. And with all her historical sensitivity, Laura Ashley was clever enough not to market any form of stays or corsetting to go with her printed dresses and tucked blouses, even though Tess and Hettie certainly wore them with theirs. Boned and constricting underwear has latterly been left to the fetishists and pornographers, now far at the other end of the erotic spectrum from starched petticoats.

As Anne Sebba remarks, the high-minded printed fabrics and simple garments tend to align Laura Ashley with the reforming spirit of Ruskin and William Morris, to place her on the side of idealistic social reform rather than in league with the forces of reaction. Despite her manipulative and unenlightened personal style, her products followed her puritanical ideals and now seem to fit in with advanced concerns for the environment and for global health of every kind, not with outmoded forms of feminine self-absorption and tunnel vision. This book, however, paints Laura Ashley herself as limited in just those ways, and does so in an old-fashioned biographical style. The antiquated language is even sharpened by a reference to an Ashley daughter-in-law as a ‘Jewess’.

Anne Sebba has previously written children’s biographies of Margot Fonteyn and Mother Teresa; and the habit of fashioning inspiring stories for the young seems to persist in this book. She follows Laura Ashley dramatically through dreamy childhood and girlhood, passionate marriage and commercial success, rise to fame and wealth, and fall to sudden death, all with a certain cheerful verve reminiscent of girls’ books from forty years ago about great heroines of the past, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale and the like. The photographs sustain the romantic view, showing beautiful dark Laura with her big determined chin, and dashing Bernard with his equally big chin and nice smile, and fine contrasting shots of their early small printing machines and their later grand dwellings.