The prairie trend has reached fever pitch this summer, and you're now as likely to find an empire-waist, ruffled-collar, long-sleeve floral dress in Topshop as in your local charity shop. Thanks to shows like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Westworld, brands like Batsheva and Ganni, plus an industry shift towards the hyper feminine, the Little House on the Prairie aesthetic has gone from farmhouse to fashion in just a few seasons. As someone with a penchant for virginal dresses and grandma blouses, it's fair to say I'm chuffed – and recently, while browsing for the perfect milkmaid number, I spotted something.
While the high street is awash with the style, a crop of cool women on Instagram are getting their fix via vintage Laura Ashley pieces. Yup, the very same heavy cotton, floral-laden brand in which my mum dressed me head-to-toe back in the '90s.
The British fashion and home furnishing brand was founded in 1953 by Laura and Bernard Ashley, who began printing fabric in their kitchen after visiting an exhibition on traditional crafts at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The couple opened their first London shop in the late 1960s, bringing their love of Victorian silhouettes and floral fabrics to the masses.
Laura Ashley celebrates its 65th birthday this year and continues to produce its signature ditsy florals, but it's the archival pieces that feel so right for now. So how did the brand go from English heritage, to mum's choice of upholstery, to fashion favourite?
Freelance writer and founder of Polyester zine, Ione Gamble, found her first piece in a vintage shop in Camden while on the hunt for a birthday dress in 2016. "Loads of my friends say I dress like a Victorian child, which I'll begrudgingly take as a compliment... I have two mid-length puff-sleeved dresses, which I think are from the late '70s or early '80s, one a paisley printed cord, and one in red cotton."
Explaining the appeal of the brand's old aesthetic, she says: "I love the fact that the shapes are unapologetically feminine while embracing silhouettes from bygone eras. As someone who isn't skinny, their shapes are super flattering on my body too." Indeed, unlike a lot of vintage steals, which have impossible measurements or are all about a cinched waist, Laura Ashley pieces are a great fit, no matter the dress size.
Of course, it being 2018, there's an entire Instagram account dedicated to the brand's past collections. Birgit Drinkwater set up Vintage Laura Ashley three years ago, and sells archival pieces through her Etsy shop. Coming from a family of tailors, Birgit grew up around sewing and cutting machines, and learned about fabrics, prints and garment quality at a young age. "My mother had the greatest admiration for Laura Ashley garments, which I inherited," she tells Refinery29. "She left me her vast collection, which no longer fit, so I sold them and began my little cottage industry venture. I've been selling vintage for around 10 years now."
For Birgit, the appeal of Laura Ashley over other vintage brands lies in "the romance of the heritage. The products have no age limit; they're universally adored due to their quality, femininity and flair." These details are what draw me to the dresses, too; the sailor collars, puckered sleeves, and bows feel playful and irreverent, rather than staid and serious. There's an element of costume drama to the brand's archive, which feels a little tongue-in-cheek against the athleisure and streetwear that's taken the industry by storm in recent years. Why shouldn't I adopt a wardrobe that's equal parts Kate Bush and Dorothy from Kansas?
If it's good enough for designer Batsheva Hay, who founded her brand – which is now stocked on Matches Fashion – in homage to vintage Laura Ashley, then it's good enough for me. The designer's obsession started in childhood, when she had both clothing and matching bedcovers from Laura Ashley. "There is such nostalgia for childhood, naïveté, and innocence, which feels very refreshing right now," she explains. "It's nice to imagine ourselves in the countryside rather than on our phones all day long. I think it's also interesting to reconsider old fashioned silhouettes and give them a modern sensibility-- to revisit them with a modern inflection." I regularly visit Batsheva's Insta feed for old Laura Ashley catalogue photos as I scour eBay for another piece to add to my collection.
The places to shop for your very own slice of prairie style? Birgit's Etsy store, eBay, Depop and by searching the Instagram hashtag #VintageLauraAshley – but you'll have to beat me to it.