Tagged: Fashion Museum

Mar 28

Shaping Victorian Bath




I’m late plugging this, but you may be interested in a story I dug up and wrote that was happily featured on the front cover of March 2017’s The Bath Magazine. It recalls what you might call a Victorian corset entrepreneur, a German emigré named Charles Bayer, and the factory he built in Bath 125 years ago. Originally called the ‘Albion Stay Factory‘*, it was a huge success and helped turn around the city’s then slightly dwindling fortunes.

The monumental Bayer building still stands on South Quay, not too far from the railway station. So, if you’re interested in garment history and happen to be in Bath, do wander down and take a look at it – at least from the outside; it’s still occupied by businesses today – though none of the garment-making variety, as far as I know.

And if you happen to be a Bathonian and worked in (or know/knew someone who worked in) the old corset factory, then the Museum of Bath at Work would be delighted to hear from you. The factory closed 35 years ago  (1982), producing foundation underwear right up until the very end, and the museum is collecting and recording recollections of former Bath garment workers as part of its ongoing oral history project.

My grateful thanks to the wonderfully helpful local historian at Bath Central Library (which is currently at the centre of a campaign to keep it in the purpose-built location that so many Bath residents know and love) for digging out a load of old press clippings for me – plus the 1930s brochure mentioned in the article – and also to the Fashion Museum, Bath for allowing me to study a handful of WW1-era Bayer corsets that they happen to have in their collection – which will have to wait for another post to get their airing.

Anyway, here’s the article. Enjoy!


*on the eve of the triggering of Article 50 and Britain’s imminent departure from Europe, that’ll be my wistfully subtle Brexit link for this post


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Aug 23

Laura Ashley stories


Laura Ashley fans, this week’s your last chance to catch the exhibition at the Fashion Museum. But there’s good news for anyone owning a vintage ’60 or ’70s Laura Ashley dress: you can get into the expo FREE this weekend if you wear that dress along! 

I must mention the retrospective just one more time to share with you some of the background stories of the dress loans. One of my favourite elements of the exhibition was the stories behind the dresses: who owned what, when, and why. I’m a sucker for social history, so this aspect really floated my boat. Many of these stories were shared in the display cards, and in the accompanying booklet (see below). I’ll retell a few here to whet your appetite.


Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan, LA launch

Joan Gould and Ruzi Buchanan with their dresses at the Laura Ashley expo launch


The pinafore-over-maxi was a key Laura Ashley look in the 1970s. Joan Gould (left) bought hers when working as a copy-editor on scientific journals in London. She tells a great story, recounted in the exhibition booklet:

‘I wore the red dress with green Anello and Davide button shoes with flesh coloured tights, no jewellery. This was my “party dress” in the early 1970s when I was in my early 20s. I bought it from the Fulham Road shop where the changing room was downstairs. There were a few cubicles, but on Saturdays it was so busy everyone just removed clothes in the area outside the cubicles in a seething, hot and bothered mass of partially clothed young women and piles of billowing clothes. Anyone seeing an item on someone else would grab it to try on themselves when they saw it had been rejected. A few boyfriends would sit upstairs on a sofa in the window, glassy-eyed and exhausted, saying “looks lovely” to the stream of young women staggering from this underworld.’


Beverley Peach, a former landscape architect and now volunteer at The Bowes Museum (where the exhibition will relocate from September), made this skirt from patchwork pieces bought in the Bath store in 1975 for the outlay of 50p. Here’s some of her story, again taken from the exhibition booklet:


‘The skirt is made entirely from remnants that were all different shapes and sizes. From the age of about 15, I made most of my own clothes. Fabric was cheap and my mum taught me how to dressmake. For a teenager in the 70s there were few shops with acceptable, affordable clothes. Chelsea Girl was a revelation! …

I remember the skirt taking a long time to make. I spent evenings sewing when I worked as a nanny in Spain during the summer of 1975, between school and university. The skirt went with me to university in Newcastle. Everything travelled in a large blue trunk, which still holds all the clothes I can’t bear to part with, including the patchwork skirt.

I wore the skirt with a white cheesecloth shirt and a long blue corduroy jacket, both of which my daughter now wears.’


Patchwork skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt, 1975


Patchwork Laura Ashley skirt

Beverley Peach’s patchwork skirt



Rose Gollop, whose picture is on this Fashion Museum press release, wore Laura Ashley on her wedding day, and her dress stands prominently at the entrance to the exhibition.



Rose Gollop’s wedding dress


‘I was married on 11 August 1973, two days after my 21st birthday. I spent very little time looking for the dress. I didn’t want anything traditional and knew that I was likely to find what I wanted at Laura Ashley. I was lucky to live near the Bath branch, which is where I bought it…

In keeping with the non-traditional theme, I wore nothing in my hair, a simple “daisy chain” bead necklace, and Greek strappy open-toed sandals that I bought in a hippy-type shop at the top of Park Street in Bristol. Unfortunately, the formal flowers that my parents persuaded me to to have did not really complement the overall look! I would have preferred to go out into the fields and gather up natural flowers. I had no bridesmaids, and was slightly dismayed to find that my new mother-in-law had made matching lime green frilly dresses for her three little grand-daughters, so that when they stood together – and near me – they did indeed look like bridesmaids.’


Do you have a Laura Ashley story to tell? The exhibition may be leaving Bath, but the Fashion Museum would still love to hear it. Take a moment and share.


Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

The booklet accompanying the exhibition features an introduction by Rosemary Harden and Joanna Hashagen, and contains several of the dress-owners’ personal stories. It is still available at the Fashion Museum shop price £5.99, while stocks last. 

Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine - exhibition booklet



Aug 13

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine



With apologies to Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a girl who grew up in the 1970s must have been in want of a Laura Ashley dress. Last month I went to the opening of a stunning new landmark exhibition marking 60 years of this major fashion label: Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine. And it helpfully confirmed my theory.

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine - image c/o Fashion Museum

Laura Ashley the Romantic Heroine – image c/o Fashion Museum


I never actually owned a genuine Laura Ashley dress* but I’ve rarely felt so personally invested in an exhibition.  Laura Ashley was the designer who dominated my formative years. I blogged about that unbearably brown-Draloned decade and some Laura Ashley fabric scraps last time, in case you missed it. It’s really the early ’70s that I’m talking about, when Laura Ashley was in her creative prime. This was when I was developing my sense of what being a woman was about, and Laura Ashley’s designs grew to dominate my internal landscape, her patterns virtually etched on the inside of my eyelids. 

So my heart was seriously aflutter when I arrived at the Fashion Museum  last month for the exhibition launch. Despite the heat (Britain was still in the grip of an atypical heatwave) there were quite a few others who appeared to share my enthusiasm. The high-ceilinged Assembly Rooms – the Georgian setting of so many dances and assemblies and home to the museum since 1969 – were packed. I gratefully accepted a glass of something cool and sparkling. Looking around, the crowd was largely female and of-a-certain-age. As we awaited the speakers, we fanned ourselves with our invitations, like so many Jane Austen heroines. 


After an introduction by a council official, legendary Fleet Street fashion journalist Felicity Green rose to recount her Laura Ashley memories. Now in her eighties, Green explained how Laura Ashley dresses gave British women just what they wanted in the early ’70s: a non-threatening response to Quant’s ’60s Youthquake mini. The mini had forced the wearer to be somewhat confrontational and angular, whereas Laura Ashley’s layered, pleated, gathered and ruffled styles wrapped women up in what Green described at the time as ‘soft-core femininity’ (Daily Mirror, 1st January 1970).  What did women want? They wanted an escapist, wholesome Romantic idyll. Most of all, to feel comfortable and unashamedly feminine. Laura Ashley happily supplied all that.

Green explained that one special thing which set Laura apart was her husband, Bernard Ashley. Green was not easily intimidated, but had she been rather frightened of Bernard, she confessed. He did not suffer fools and was very sharp-witted on the business side. Green also knew Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki (the designer behind Biba) and their husbands, who, by contrast, were totally charming but lacked Bernard’s business orientation. Both Quant and Hulanicki subsequently lost their trademarks, and this was the crucial difference between them and Ashley.  Thanks to Bernard’s nous, Laura Ashley became the first truly international label.

Turning to the exhibition itself, Green bestowed the strongest praise: “Unparalleled,” she said. ‘Truly a combination of fashion and style and presentation. Outstrips the V&A.” High praise indeed for curators Rosemary Harden and Ian R .Webb.

As we listened to Felicity’s fascinating memories, I spotted this young woman in a gorgeous floor-sweeping vintage Laura Ashley swan-print strappy summer dress. She told me later that it had been her mother’s.


Guest wearing her mum’s original ’70s dress

Then we filed into the exhibition itself. The first sight to greet us was that distinctive lower-case logo, plus a row of simple, serene cream and white dresses.


Entrance to the exhibition


Serene white


We turned the corner to face the breathtaking spectacle of almost 100 dresses.


Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine


What strikes you immediately is the pastiches of various periods: this Regency style, that Victorian governess outfit. You could see how Laura was influenced by what must then have been on TV at the time, which historical serial was capturing her (and the nation’s) imagination. Laura had such an uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist. And her interpretation of the styles is so interesting: she wasn’t copying those earlier styles, but borrowing elements to make very wearable dresses.



High necks, pleats and lace frills

Some of the high collars looked a little uncomfortable, at least from the vantage point of a very hot summer’s day.

Beccy and I at LA launch, July 2013

Beccy (right) and I, thoroughly engrossed


There is no glass between the visitor and the exhibits, and it’s very tempting touch; all that cotton certainly screams “FEEL ME!” It’s quite special to be able to get so close to exhibits like this.

Early on in the exhibition are Laura’s first dresses dating from the ’60s. Recognisably of the period, but distinctive Laura Ashley tones and prints.


A row of 1960s dresses



Regency-style ruching



The Governess look


I persuaded my friend and neighour, Beccy, to join me at the exhibition. She has just established re-be, a business selling upcycled clothes for children, and an early Laura Ashley dress had featured as the makeover target in her range, so I hoped that she’d find the exhibition both useful and interesting.

She brought the little outfit along, and how fabulous to find a sister-dress to the one she’d upcycled! Before you get upset, the purple object of her upcycling had been her business partner’s mother’s dress (following?) and had been ruined before Beccy’s scissors took to it.


High necks and frills

re-be reinterpretation of vintage Laura Ashley dress

re-be reincarnation next to identical dress in different colourway

I was drawn to this grass-green pinafore, partly because I recognised that pansy fabric, partly because I made something very similar (but with long sleeves) from a commercial Laura Ashley pattern about 10 years later. This one had a great story attached. It was chosen by Alpen to use in their advert when they launched the breakfast cereal in Britain. At the time, all things continental were in favour (I remember the ‘continental quilt’ or duvet arriving in the ’70s, ousting the tradition British two-sheets-and-a-blanket combination). The slogan for the advert reflected how well Laura Ashley’s wholesome image dovetailed with the new breakfast cereal’s image: ‘more natural goodness every morning’.

Alpen dress

The Alpen dress

And then there were some extraordinary offerings, much more on the psychedelic end of the spectrum than I would have thought possible. My photos don’t quite capture their shock value. In real life, those checked fabrics really zing.


Psychedelic checks

My only disappointment was wandering a little later up to the Bath shop, the first Laura Ashley shop to be opened outside of London. They had a lovely window display; note the same fabric used here as in that Alpen pinny.


Current display in the Bond Street branch of Laura Ashley in Bath

But there were no nostalgic Laura Ashley goods to be found inside. What a pity.For those itching to get their purses out, there is a really nice little exhibition booklet available which can be purchased at both the Fashion Museum and The Bowes Museum for about £5.

This compelling exhibition set Laura Ashley much more firmly in context for me. She plugged right into the early ’70s hunger for the wholesome. I can see now how much she drew on historical styles, but without slavishly copying them; the dresses are not made in a historical way, but are her interpretations. But I was surprised to see how many of the fabrics were much brighter, the designs more eye-popping than I’d remembered. I can’t wait to visit it again and really hope that you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself. 


Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at The Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.

In my next post… some personal Laura Ashley stories from women who loaned their dresses to the exhibition.


*though I did make myself a couple from a purchased Laura Ashley pattern


Jul 12

It’s Darling! Summer Spectacular

It's Darling! summer fair 2011



It's Darling! summer fair flyer back

I’ll be at the It’s Darling! vintage & artisan fair again this summer on Saturday 16th July, bringing my specially selected batch of Scrapiana vintage haberdashery, textiles, handmade items etc. Oh, and lots and lots of strawberry emery grit, just in case you’ve got a yearning to make your own vintage strawberry needle-cushions (as featured in Mollie Makes magazine). Last summer’s It’s Darling! event was the very first of its kind, and the fair is really going from strength  to strength. I hope I’ll be sitting next to the lovely Faith Caton-Barber again (and her glorious bespoke wearable Something Fabulous creations). I’ll be featuring Faith in greater depth on the blog very soon.

If you’re planning a day (or even a weekend in Bath), don’t forget that there’s a new exhibition of film costumes (Dressing the Stars) opening at the Fashion Museum, Marilyn’s costumes are still on show at the American Museum, and the Roman Baths are open till late (10pm in July and August – last entry 9pm). Hope to see you on Saturday!


Apr 18

Slow Dress Day

We did it! Our first Slow Art Day here in Bath has happened! Strictly speaking, we probably have to rename ours Slow Dress Day, because our canvases were the applied art of clothing – mostly dresses – in the collection of the Fashion Museum.

Silver Tissue Dress

Slow Art Day at the Bath Fashion Museum

A very small (let’s say ‘select’) crowd met outside the Fashion Museum on Saturday at 11am. OK, there were just three of us, but that’s officially a crowd in my book. Given that we were so few, we decided to go around together and discuss as we went – not quite as suggested by the organisers, but it worked for us. Just to remind you, Slow Art Day is a grassroots concept born in the US. More flash-mob than guided tour, it requires only an interested ‘host’ to pick out a few items to view, and doesn’t demand the art gallery or museum to be involved at all, though I felt it polite to brief the Fashion Museum on what might be hitting it.

The shortlist of items to view was helpful. One of our group had an unusual perspective; she’d suffered a brain haemorrhage a few years ago and now experiences information-overload very quickly, so she really appreciated paring down the options and going slower. And cutting down the items vying for our attention released us all from the anxiety of choice. We found that concentrating on less gave us the space to ask ourselves (and each other) lots of questions. How would that dress have felt to wear? Would the pointy part of that bodice have dug in when you sat down? What would have been worn underneath? Is that manikin the right shape for the period? How did they weave silver into that fabric? How expensive would a metre of that fabric have been? Would the dress have looked as muted as this when new? What exactly is the parchment in parchment lace? – would it have been possible to hide a secret message in it?! Why were the fingers on the seventeenth century gloves so extremely long? How would you have visited ‘the smallest room’ in a mantua? If you sat down in a crinoline, what happened to your skirt ? Happily, the museum has modern crinolines for visitors to try on, so we could test out this last question for ourselves. Answer: it probably depended on your crinoline: some flew up exposing your underwear, some were more demure.

Sometimes we started looking at one thing but were drawn to compare it with similar items located close by. This happened a lot in the What Will She Wear? exhibition, featuring the museum’s collection of wedding dresses (a nod to a certain royal wedding later this month). We had two of the dresses on our list but it seemed natural to contrast them with the rest of the exhibits which spanned almost 200 years. We started with the oldest wedding dress, dated 1829. It wasn’t the most beautiful, but told us something about that period. Not white but a dark champagne colour (the white-for-a wedding convention hadn’t bedded in yet), it had wide-set leg o’ mutton sleeves, lots of flouncy lace, and a curious closure down the centre front.

We experienced a few glitches: a change to one of the displays post-selection, and the closure of our lunch venue (the museum’s cafe) in order to accommodate a wedding reception. This was a teeny bit annoying as I’d thought to check ahead that the cafe would be open to the public that day. But there was something appropriate (given what we’d just been looking at) in being shooed away by the wedding photographer wanting a clean shot of the bride as she entered the beautiful Assembly Rooms. We got a great view of the dress as she swept by on her dad’s arm, and it was easy to find an alternative vendor of soup-and-a-roll for three nearby.

There were a lot of interested would-be Slow-Arters who couldn’t make it this time, and a lot of people responded really favourably to the general Slow Art Day concept, so I hope there will be more. If you’d like to be part of an unofficial follow-up Slow Art event at the Fashion Museum (possibly in May), please leave a comment and I’ll be delighted to organise it. The same principles will apply: no charge, just pay cost of your admission. Do mention if during the school day or on a Saturday works best for you. And if you fancy hosting a Slow Art Day event next year (Saturday 28th April 2012),  no experience or expertise is necessary, just lots of enthusiasm. Find out more over at the Slow Art Day site .

I’ll sign off with another 1950s’s TV gem from the creator of the Fashion Museum, the incomparable Doris Langley Moore. I particularly love the way she says ‘head’, and the bobbling period credits. Enjoy!


Apr 05

Informal clothes

I found this 1957 film while searching for fashion and textiles on YouTube.

It’s reputedly one of the first experimental BBC programmes shot in colour, part of a series named Men, Women and Clothes. The new medium of colour TV wouldn’t become available in Britain for another decade, and the Queen Mother, who was treated to a preview of the series, is said to have enjoyed it but regretted that the general public wouldn’t get a chance to see it. Happily, we can now.

The clipped narrator is the wonderful Doris Langley Moore founder of  the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum) which hadn’t yet taken root in Bath and was at this point lodged at Eridge Castle, Sussex. There isn’t the slightest chance of the Fashion Museum’s clothes being modeled by real people nowadays, so enjoy this glimpse into curatorial history just as much as the film’s insights into fashion history.

And if your appetite for historic fashion is whetted, consider yourself invited to the Slow Art Day event on Saturday 16th April which Yrs Truly is hosting. It’ll involve perusing a handful of exhibits dotted around the museum, and then meeting for lunch and a (very informal!) discussion afterward. Just a reminder that if you live in Bath, entry to the museum is free with your Discovery card. A grateful thank-you to Erin for tipping me off about SAD (which wins my vote for Unfortunate Event Acronym of the Year – I’ve already inadvertently caused offence by asking  about ‘your SAD event…’!); if you happen to be in San Francisco, join Erin for SAD at the Cartoon Art Museum. Or host your own event! It’s easy and there’s still time.

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Mar 28

Slow Art Day

Anyone fancy soaking up some costume artistry? Gazing long and lovingly at some historic fashion, in particular? I’ve volunteered to co-ordinate a small group of enthusiasts to visit the Fashion Museum here in Bath for a great little initiative called Slow Art Day on the morning of Saturday 16th April.


1760s court dress in the Bath Fashion Museum

Founder of the event, Phil Terry, set out to break the common cycle of exhibition overload, whereby an average visitor (spending an average 8 seconds looking at an average exhibit) emerges from a museum tired not inspired. By slowing things down, he reasoned, one can learn the secret understood by experts, curators, artists and educators everywhere: that looking slowly can transform your experience.

Well, I’ve spoken to the publicist at the Fashion Museum, and she’s keen on the concept. All I need to find is a few costume/needlework/dressmaking/sewing/clothes-wearing enthusiasts to pad out a little group. All welcome! You don’t need any expertise at all, just an interest. We’ll be looking at a handful of items (5-10) over a couple of hours, allocating 5-10 minutes per item, hence the ‘slow’ tag. We don’t need to go around in a group; in fact, it makes sense not to as we’d clog the museum. But we’ll gather somewhere close by afterward (probably the nice cafe within the museum) for a light lunch and to compare notes on what we’ve seen. Hopefully, we’ll all emerge with new insights.

The downside, if there is one, is that we all pay for our own entry tickets and lunch (now you see why the publicist was keen!). But the big upside is a gathering of like minds and the glorious sense of confounding our hurly-burly culture for a couple of hours.

Looking at the Slow Art Day site, I note that this may be the only Slow Art event happening in the UK. What began in New York in April 2009 with just 4 people staring hard at items in the MoMA appears to be growing into a global phenomenon. It seems perfectly fitting – given the laid-back, leisurely reputation of Bath – that we should spearhead this initiative here and show the UK how to decelerate effectively to a dawdle. If you’re reading this from somewhere else in the UK (or indeed the world) and can’t or won’t get to Bath, please consider hosting your own Slow Art Day event. It’s really very simple to do.

If you feel inclined to drag your feet with me at the Fashion Museum, do get in touch by leaving a comment below, emailing me (eirlysATscrapianaDOTcom) or just sign up direct here. You’d be very welcome to suggest items for the group’s scrutiny, otherwise I’ll scour the museum’s collection and send out a little list the week before. Hope to see you on 16th!

Photo by kind permission of Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and the Fashion Museum, Bath & NE Somerset Council

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