Laura Ashley dominated the fashion scene in the late 1980s. Her dresses, worn most prominently by Princess Diana, were characterized by romantic English floral designs, often with a 19th-century rural feel and the use of natural fabrics. Her dresses and hats were popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and also in Japan. But last week it was announced that Laura Ashley’s current owner is in crisis talks to secure emergency funding for the future of the company.

Though Laura Ashley itself may be failing, the impact of her vision can be seen in the designs of current brands making strides on the fashion scene today. Most notably, The Vampire’s Wife, a brand created by the wife of musician Nick Cave, has had huge success with their line of Victorian-style dresses in ditsy florals that don’t look dissimilar to Laura Ashley of the 80s. But why do these fashion trends cycle around in this way? Well, it may be due to fashion’s connection to feminism and the economy.

Hemline Index Theory

A fashion model wearing a Laura Ashley evening gown, 1983.
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Fashion is a reflection of what is happening in the world. Back in 1926, economist George Taylor created the “hemline index theory.” The theory suggests that hemlines on women’s dresses and skirts rise along with stock prices. In good economies, we see such results as miniskirts, like those seen on the flappers of the 1920s and the Mary Quant mini of the 1960s. In poorer economic times, like the period after the 1929 Wall Street crash, we witness hemlines dropping seemingly overnight. Erasmus School of Economics research in 2010 supported the correlation, suggesting that the economic cycle leads the hemline with about three years.

While fashion is influenced by economics, feminism also plays a part. The first incarnation of Laura Ashley came during the second wave of feminism. The movement began in the United States in the early 1960s and lasted roughly two decades. As it gained momentum, so too did the desire to dress more modestly — in Laura Ashley, for example.

But by the 90s, the wave had died down. Not coincidentally, the body-con dress had become the norm. Yes, hemlines were up again and the dresses were far more form fitting, utilizing materials such as lycra rather than cotton. This trend, sported by Cindy Crawford in the 90s and the likes of Kim Kardashian in recent years, lasted until Fourth Wave Feminism and the #MeToo made an appearance.

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Since the #MeToo movement, which actually began in 2006, and with the economy crashing in 2008, the body-con dress fell out of style and “modest fashion” started to rise again. While this style began as a way for women to wear less revealing clothes, especially in a way that satisfies their spiritual and stylistic requirements for reasons of faith or religion, many non-religious fashionistas have embraced the trend too. According to a 2018 report by DinarStandard and Reuters, sales of modest fashions are expected to reach $361 billion by 2023.

And now we’ve come full circle. With the recent release of the movie Little Women, the prairie dress — a Laura Ashley classic — has become the “it” item for women to own in 2020. Ironically, the vintage Laura Ashley dresses of the 70s and 80s have started to sell for over $600 on eBay, but their current collection is losing money.

Looking forward — and back

Like everything in fashion, often the way forward is to look back. While modern day Laura Ashley struggles to gain ground, the company may want to look at what made them successful to begin with. The designs of the 70s and 80s suddenly seem modern. The desire for femininity and modesty is back with a vengeance. There’s certainly a market for nostalgia out there; let’s hope Laura Ashley can grasp onto that before the cycle begins again.

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