Monday, January 23, 2012

Laura Ashley Brides

Back in 1988 I went to work at Laura Ashley.  For someone who loved old fashioned clothes, it was heaven on earth.  The shop girls were required to wear Laura clothes, and so there was a clothing allowance based on a point system.  As I was a full time employee, I earned three points a month.  Part time girls received two points a month.  You could get a dress or skirt for two points, maybe a top for a point, etc.  Sometimes you'd bank your points to get something really wonderful like a coat.  We also had the "company closet," a rail of clothes belonging to the store that we could borrow from, which included some of the more iconic white blouses and petticoats.

At one time, I had nearly 70 pieces of Laura Ashley in my wardrobe from espadrilles to gloves to ballgowns to the iconic 80/80 cotton lawn dresses with a square neck and puffed sleeves.  I've still got a baker's dozen or so in my closet, although I could now kick myself for donating so many of those pretty floral dresses with lace collars to Goodwill every time I see them pop up on eBay or on some vintage Etsy store.

Word to you vintage sellers out there.  I know I'm not alone in feeling nostalgia for the clothes I used to own.  There are a lot of women like me who would like to buy their old Laura dresses back (or something that looks a lot like a print we used to love), but we are not about to buy a dress that got chopped off halfway down the skirt by some sweet young thing.  Yes, there were some Laura party dresses in mini lengths in the 80s, but those were few and far between.  The classic Laura dress was below the knee.  You'll have a better chance of selling the dress if it's in it's original condition.

I got engaged when I was working at the South Coast Plaza store.  Nothing delighted me (or my manager) more than trying on the Bridal dresses on my lunch break.  Trivia:  Laura Ashley had operated a telex for British Intelligence during her stint as a WREN in WWII.  The American branches selling the bridal gowns all had telexes linked to the Laura Ashley factory in Carno, Wales, placing the orders directly in the manufacturing queue.  I still remember the tags on the gowns - "Made with love in Carno."

After I ended my stint at Laura-land, I ended up buying my gown at Jessica McClintock after seeing a dress in the window that reminded me of the second act of the ballet "Giselle."  However, I never stopped dreaming of a Laura wedding dress of my own.  I've purchased a few on eBay, and they're in the closet with my own wedding dresses (second time lucky).  I've got some of the bridal catalogs from the 80s and 90s.  At one time, I had all of them, but lost some along the path of life.  I could also kick myself for throwing out the Laura Ashley by Post catalogs that I'd amassed over the years in order to clear up space in our last home.  Now those are going for a chunk of change on eBay as well.

I've scanned the last Bridal Collection brochure produced by Laura Ashley USA in 1995.  It was only a little post card sized brochure as compared to the lovely full sized catalogs that the company used to print.  I will post some of the other catalogs I still have in the coming weeks.  Takes a bit of time to scan, ya know?  I love these dresses because the fabrics and silhouettes are what is important - not embellishment.  Good quality cotton and silks.  English net lace.  These dresses are also all perfectly appropriate for church weddings with covered shoulders and no deep necklines.

Sadly, there are no longer Laura Ashley shops in the U.S. or Canada.  Laura passed away in 1985, and her husband Bernard (later Sir Bernard) started expanding the chain with the help of a public stock offering, probably more than he should have.  The North American chain essentially imploded from oversaturation.  In 1998 the Ashley family sold their interest to a Malaysian holding company which closed the North American shops shortly after that.  Although the Laura Ashley brand still exists, the product that is now sold in North America is only a shadow of it's former self.  Real Laura garments were of the highest quality materials and were based on the romance of the past and Laura's love for Victorian prints and silhouettes.  Current Laura doesn't look like old school Laura, rather their clothes now look like anything that you could buy at any high street chain store.  The company is emphasizing their home furnishings business, which are still supposed to be meeting the same high standards.  However, we Americans can't get that great home furnishings fabric here easily anymore.  I miss the romance of walking into one of the shops with the polished brass rails, pine floors and cupboards, sections filled with floral prints for every season and the pristine white blouses of spotted muslin and Irish lace.  

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p said...

I worked at the SCP Laura Ashley shop during the same time frame that you did (I was only part time) and ordered my bridal dress from Laura Ashley. They were lovely dresses back in the day and I still have a closet full of them. Working there was hard on the pocketbook but great to get first dibs on the newest dresses!

Solitaire said...

Oh wow! Were you there when Donna was the manager, or earlier when it was the Scottish gal - I wanna say her name started with an "L", it's been so long...

Edelweiss Patterns said...

Thank you for sharing those lovely images! I remember my mother shopping at Laura Ashley when I was young, and those romantic floral dresses were so refreshing in a sea of jeans and t-shirts.

These pictures are like a breath of fresh air!


stevenjared0853 said...

Wow, all these photos are so cute. I am also very interested in having a rustic themed wedding and going to attend the annual bridal show that will be hosted at one of the local San Francisco venues. Hopefully I will have some nice ideas for my special day.