Valentine’s Day is just round the corner and there’s no better time to pay tribute to the queen of romantic English country style, fashion and design: Laura Ashley.
Many people know Laura Ashley as a British fashion and furnishings icon with the height of her popularity in the 70s and 80s. She led a generation of women in the United Kingdom — and subsequently all around the world — to dress in the nostalgia of a 19th century English rural sensibility.
Beyond that, little is known about the life and once outsized influence of this enigmatic personality. Here are 10 fascinating things you may not know about her:
- Despite her association with the English countryside, Laura Ashley was not English at all. She was born in Wales in 1925 and lived for much of her childhood there.
- World War II limited educational opportunities for Laura Ashley who enrolled in secretarial school and then served in the British navy as a teenager, where she met her husband and future business partner Bernard Ashley.
- The first items Laura Ashley made were napkins, table mats and tea towels, using a silk screen she mastered after multiple trips to the library to learn about fabric printing.
- But it was Italy that gave Laura Ashley her big break. And an American had a hand in it.
- The popular 1952 film Roman Holiday which starred Audrey Hepburn in her iconic headscarf ignited a fashion trend among young Italian women — an observation Laura Ashley and her husband astutely picked up on during their own Roman holiday that year. Upon their return to London, Laura Ashley began making women’s scarves and these sold out within hours at the respected UK department store John Lewis on Oxford Street, effectively launching her career.
- Inspired by rural Welsh living and the desire for housewives to dress comfortably, Laura Ashley “had the whole world dressed as milk maids” (as noted by her husband after her passing) which was no mean feat made all the more incredible by the male-dominated influence of female fashion in the 1960s.
- Laura Ashley preceded a host of American designers whose styles are rooted in a similar classic and restrained manner, including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. While the volume of these brands’ retail businesses may have overshadowed hers, her influence in creating an iconic and immediately recognizable look far surpasses the others, even to this day.
- In the late 1970s and 1980s, Laura Ashley and her family built a home for themselves as a getaway from city life in Upstate New York at the foot of the Catskills in the beautiful and historic Hudson Valley, just over an hour north of Manhattan.
- The Ashleys named it “Rose Cottage Farm” and added numerous touches to recreate the English countryside on the sprawling estate; these included building a quaint wooden potting shed right by the stonewalled kitchen, installing the venerable Aga stove for the many family meals prepared on the farm, and hand painting the walls of a bathroom with a beautiful motif of flowers and butterflies.
- Today, Rose Cottage Farm has been loving restored and preserved to welcome guests as the romantic Hudson Valley Rose Bed and Breakfast. In honor of Laura Ashley’s legacy, the former master bedroom of the stone house is named the Ashley Room. It is furnished in her signature English country style featuring a low Queen-sized bed to provide full access to the chest-high windows unique to the era of the estate’s Georgian architecture overlooking the horse pastures, a plantation desk and dresser, and a claw foot tub and relaxing rain shower along the gorgeous stone wall from the house’s original 1847 structure.
So there you have it: a boutique historic country inn that counts a fashion-design legend among its former owners — within driving distance of New York City.