When we visited Laura McLaws Helms at her beautiful Brooklyn abode this past February, 2020 was still looking rosy. The 36-year-old fashion and culture historian was in the midst of planning her springtime wedding, complete with multiple dress changes from a vintage collection she’d been amassing for years. Her closet is filled with the fantastical likes of Zandra Rhodes, Bill Gibb and Thea Porter, a bohemian master whom Helms penned a biography on. “When I was around ten, I came across a really beautiful dress and fell madly in love with it and my mother was like, that’s an Ossie Clarke!” she says of another icon represented in her closet. While the wedding was put on hold (she later wed in a small ceremony in July), the collection is an ongoing tribute to Helms’ love for the past.
Growing up in London, England, Helms always felt most at home in the decades preceding her existence. “I can just remember having these really visceral experiences while seeing and hearing things from the seventies or eighties and thinking, oh my god this is right for me.” While her tween contemporaries were busy with crushes on the New Kids on the Block, Helms was developing a taste for idiosyncratic glam rock stars. “We were visiting America and they were playing old videos on MTV and I remember seeing an Adam Ant video and saying to my mother, ‘that’s the man I’m going to marry,’” she tells us. “It was instantaneous, I made her buy me a CD of his that day, I just felt connected with it in a way that I didn’t feel connected with the things that I saw going on at the time.”
In a way, this tweenage obsession launched her career in history; “Even in the pre-Internet age, I would just start researching and asking questions once I got into one person.”
Today, Helms serves up her encyclopedic knowledge at @laurakitty, an Instagram treasure trove of B-movie clips, archival glamour shots and retro commercials (a recent favourite was a 1977 ad for a female antiperspirant named Tickle, which featured models laughing maniacally through a variety of scenarios). Much of what is featured on her account is pulled from her own collection of vintage books or a hard drive of over 20,000 video clips she began saving while researching for her PhD. “It’s a collection of whatever lights me up,” she says. “But I’m not going to put the most known picture of Brigette Bardot because you’ve fucking seen it.”
Helms’ archive runs deep, and is unlike many of the contextless images we’re served on the daily via social media. “I get a little annoyed someone posts a picture because it fits with their grid, and they don’t include any credits. There’s actually a lot of people who worked on that,” she says. “They deserve the credit, but also other people can then look it up, and go learn from it.”
When she’s not sharing retro delights, Helms serves as a consultant for fashion brands and runs LADY, an arts and fashion magazine she founded with Susan Winget in 2013. The two also co-design Marshmallow, a line of maxi dresses and separates inspired by vintage silhouettes and named after her cat. Here, Helms shares a few mementoes central to her formative years.