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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Jesus, it's all so Frumpy: a Journey into Laura Ashley
by Robbie Meredith
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He stood, strong and silent, waiting for her response. Her eyes were open wide in wonder, and he was reminded of the small helpless deer he had stumbled across in the woods in the midst of Jammy Harwood-Smythe's shooting party. Her face was suddenly flushed, and her breath quickened. Somewhere, beyond his warm 4x4, a dove was cooing. How would she respond to his entreaty?
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'You must be fucking joking. Laura Ashley I'm not that old am I? Jesus, it's all so frumpy. I wouldn't wear that stuff.'
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I have never known any women who wear Laura Ashley, but I had my suspicions about one acquaintance. I got to know her, found out about her likes and dislikes, laughed with her, held long and deep conversations, behaved in my most charming manner, and, when I felt she was ready, popped the question. The above was her response. Bang goes my Mills and Boon. For a change, then, I was going to have to do some research and visit an actual Laura Ashley store to discover women who were not ashamed of coming out in their floral print cardigans. The store in Castlecourt was packed. It's a strange Northern Irish phenomenon that many things which the rest of the world seems to have rejected are still regarded as classy and aspirational here. Laura Ashley was a clothes designer, based in rural mid-Wales, who set up her own fashion company in 1953. She died in 1986, when her name had become a lauded 'upmarket brand.' Lately, however, 'Laura Ashley dress' has featured more often in the media as a term of abuse, fashion for Sloaney women attempting to recreate an England that is no more. As a result, mention of the company's name in the business pages is often accompanied by the adjective 'beleaguered,' as shops close across Europe, executives resign, and pre-tax losses are posted. Share prices have dropped from a high of £2.35 to a meagre six pence.
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I am, however, impressed by the exterior of their local shop. In contrast to the bland shopping centre shopfronts elsewhere, the Laura Ashley window is quite intricate, its gilded panes suggesting the drawing room bay window of the venerable Jammy's country house. I look at the 'Laura Ashley' typeface above the door. In all my life I don't think that I've come across a more perfect example of something 'nice.' We're talking absolute 'nice,' perfect 'nice,' theory of forms 'nice.'
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As I enter the store, I can't think of any other word but nice. The assistants look nice, the women shoppers look nice, their mothers look nice very few women appear to be alone here, they shop in pairs, one older, one younger the clothes look nice, the shop is nice, I feel nice. Oh my good God, I'm aphasic.
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Salvation comes in the row of clothes to my left. Suddenly, I'm in the midst of poetry. I see some plain white trousers, but the label describes them as 'linen cigarette trousers.' Intrigued, I finger the labels on the suits hanging close by. A vaguely gold shiny two-piece is in fact a 'light honey sateen cotton suit,' the purple one beside it is a 'thistle line jacquard suit.' I don't even know what jacquard means, but it sounds beautiful. Laura Ashley's 'clothes-namer,' or whatever their job title is, should really be the next poet laureate. If Wordsworth lived today
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I can smell summer fields, herbs, sweet William. It envelopes me. 'Can I help you?' An assistant appears at my shoulder. She speaks in Belfast with a hint of Tunbridge Wells. I love the thought of Tunbridge Wells. Her perfume is a bit too strong. What do I say? 'Can I have a catalogue please. It's, um, for my wife.' 'Certainly. They're just over there.' I pick up a catalogue, and decide that I can complete my study in the nearest coffee shop. Brushing lightly past the mothers and daughters I walk out of the nice door. I can't help feeling slightly bereft.
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When I was a young boy I used to get my sexual pleasure scanning the underwear pages of my mum's Freeman's catalogue. I am delighted to find that flicking through the Laura Ashley catalogue brings me a similar sensation. The women are pleasingly demure, offering, to my queasy masculine mind, nothing so much as a politely submissive shag after introducing me to daddy at the Polo. My imagination becomes fevered at the abundance of cream floral print. Little else is on show. To show one's knees seems decidedly vulgar. Bare arms are fine, but there is no hint of cleavage anywhere, and even the camisoles ensure that any soft nipples are buried beneath at least six inches of lilac cotton.
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I will buy the Ulster Tatler, join the Tennis Club, wear a suit to the Ulster Derby and decorate my bedroom in bespoke blossom linen jacquard. I decide that Belfast women are too damn forward. I want an English rose.
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