Irish Designers and Design
Sybil Connolly is arguably the most famous Irish fashion designer of the 20th century. She is credited with putting Irish fashion on the map. She was a member of the ‘Big Three’ Irish fashion designers along with Irene Gilbert and Raymond Kenna/ Kay Peterson and is considered a national treasure of the country.
She was known for creating haute couture using traditional Irish textiles including finely pleated linen, bainín wool, Donegal tweed and Limerick & Carrickmacross lace; she reworked them to give them contemporary appeal and glamour.
At seventeen her interest in clothes led her to be apprenticed to a London dressmaking company Bradley & Co – whose clients included Queen Mary. She returned to Ireland in 1940 after the outbreak of WWII and began working for Ireland’s foremost fashion retailer Richard Alan, eventually replacing the head designer there in 1953. Her work drew the attention of American buyers and the editor of Harper’s bazaar.
Her first major fashion show was held at Dunsany castle in 1953. Photographer Richard Dormer used the house and grounds for a shoot featuring model Anne Gunning wearing a full length red Kinsale cape and white crochet evening dress. It made the cover of Life Magazine in August 1953 under the heading ‘Irish Invade The Fashion World’. Her career took off rapidly after that, especially in the States where she was beloved by the press. She had a flair for publicity and became a celebrity in her own right.
She officially launched her couture label in 1957 at the age of 36. She moved her work into a posh neighbourhood at 71 Merrion Square, Dublin, “the house that linen built”, as she fondly called it. Furnished in eighteenth-century antiques, the house was her design headquarters for the next 40 years.
Sybil Connolly’s most recognizable trademark might be her famous crystal pleated linen, which was said to take 9 yards of fabric for every one yard of finished material. Her iconic ‘First Love’ dress was made of three hundred pleated linen handkerchiefs and contained more than five thousand pleats. Time magazine described it as ‘the dress that brought the house down’ in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria where it was shown amongst the likes of Dior and Balenciaga.
‘Cosy evening’ was a skirt made entirely of crios, the hand woven belts worn by the men of the Aran Islands.
She took the red flannel traditionally used for petticoats in Connemara and turned it into billowing peasant skirts.
Some were not always pleased with how Sybil presented and perhaps exploited the notion of her native country’s peasantry. However, she insisted that in this “terribly competitive business… unless Ireland can produce something distinctive, she will get nowhere”.
In the late 1950s, she was employing around 100 women, half of them working from their own homes where they wove tweed or handmade lace, adamant to keep employment in Ireland.
Jackie Kennedy wore a Connolly dress for her official White House portrait in 1970.
Though she was popular with men, Sybil never married. She told the Daily Mail in 1957, “For the moment, I like to buy my mink and diamonds myself”.
Eventually, Sybil’s career began to falter as she proved reluctant to adapt to the fast-paced fashion world. Towards the end of her life, Sybil turned her hand to interiors and designed for such brands as Tiffany’s.
She passed away in 1998, her legacy clear with thousands of visitors coming to her Merrion Square studio to bid on 600 lots over the course of 4 days.
You can visit a collection of Sybil’s work on permanent display in the Hunt Museum, Limerick, Ireland. They recently crowdfunded to implement conservation on her haute couture pieces. @huntmuseum
We are lucky enough to have one of her 1950s dresses in our shop. How luxurious are those pleats?
Paul Costelloe is one of the most established names in Irish fashion. He studied fashion in Paris in the 1960s before working for Jacques Esterel and then Anne Fogarty in New York. He moved back to Ireland and established his own label in 1979.
In 1983, he was appointed personal designer to Diana, princess of Wales.
Renowned for his use of natural fibers and fabrics, the best-quality wools and silks, and a particular bias toward traditional Irish linen, Costelloe clothes are one of the most subtle, understated, yet beautifully designed and manufactured collections available today.
Irene Gilbert was Ireland’s first couturier and the first woman to run a successful fashion business in Ireland. She designed for high society and royalty, famous for her friendship and work with Grace Kelly.
She began her career running a dress shop in Dublin, but had always had an interest in fashion design. As there was nowhere for her to train in that field in post-independence Ireland, she moved to London where she trained under a court dressmaker. Following WWII, she opened a shop called Femina in Dublin. After a successful fashion show in 1950, she began selling clothes under her own label. 1950s Ireland was a gloomy period, particularly economically and half million left the country to escape poverty. It was against this backdrop that she became a world renowned couturier and the first one to base themselves out of Ireland.
She was known for incorporating silk, tweed, linen and Carrickmacross lace into her designs. She sourced from indigenous producers where possible, such as Avoca hand weavers and Magee & Co. Of Donegal. It is said that she once went as far as to turn up on the doorstep of Avoca Hand Weavers in county Wicklow clutching a bunch of dried hydrangeas, begging workers in the mill to help her replicate their colour in her latest tweed creation.
She, along with Sybil Connolly, made Dublin a must-stop fashion destination in the 50s. Gilbert once declared that her work was so thorough and her clothes so well made that they could be worn inside out. At the height of her success, she employed more than 30 women in her workrooms.
She also designed uniforms for Aer Lingus.
Seeing an end to couture, she closed her business in 1969 in the face of escalating costs and diminishing demand. She immigrated to Malta and later passed away in England in 1985.
Though she gained a well respected reputation internationally at the time, she kept her personal life very private and preferred to be out of the spotlight, shying away from publicity. It is for this reason that she is not as well remembered as her contemporary Sybil Connolly, and not much of her archives survive.
Birr Castle in county Offaly houses a collection of Gilbert’s work, once owned by the Countess of Rosse. The National Museum of Ireland also holds some of her clothing.
Irish linen is the brand name given to linen produced in Ireland.
Linen has been produced in Ireland for thousands of years but it really took off in the 17th century when it became a major industry, concentrated mainly in Ulster. The Irish wool industry was competing too successfully with that of Britain and so the British crown decided to put a stop to that by banning wool exports from Ireland. This left linen to fill the gap.
By the late 18th century, Belfast was the biggest producer of linen in the world, leading to the city being nicknamed ‘Linenopolis’.
It was mostly spun by women in their homes but with the devastation caused by the Great Famine, it forced the large industrial spinners to look for alternatives to the hand-loom weavers. By 1871 there were 78 flax spinning mills with a workforce of 43,000.
With the proliferation of cheaply produced man-made and synthetic fibres throughout the 20th century, flax production in Ireland steadily declined. From around 1950 onwards, most flax fibres used in the production of Irish linen have been produced in northern Europe. However, linens woven in Ireland are still highly regarded. Its brand, unique qualities of comfort, drape and its distinctive appearance kept it a niche in the luxury market, and its unique physical properties maintained its use in industrial textiles. These advantages were well backed up by the confirmed quality, and the confidence and equity established in the Irish linen brand.
Irish linen is still woven today in the same traditional areas, and by descendants of those who have worked in the industry, and passed down skills, learned over many hundreds of years.
The Aran jumper (or Geansaí Árann) is a style of jumper/ sweater that takes its name from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
Traditional jumpers are usually off-white in colour from using undyed báinín, a yarn made from sheep’s wool. They were originally made with unwashed wool that still contained lanolin, making the garment water resistant.
Aran jumpers usually feature between 4-6 patterns that move down the body and sleeves in columns.
This type of knitting was invented around 1890 during an initiative to alleviate poverty on the islands. Fisherman and their wives from other regions of Ireland and Britain came to help train people in better fishing skills. They brought with them a tradition of Guernsey knitting from the Channel Islands. Enterprising local Aran women began knitting their own jumpers inspired by this style of knitting. They used thicker wool, all-over patterning and different construction. The modern Aran jumper as we know it today can be dated to 1932 when it was commissioned by social reformer Muriel Gahan.
The first commercial patterns became available in the 1940s and Vogue started writing about Aran knitwear in the 50s when Standún’s of Galway started exporting their jumpers to the United States. This provided employment for many women in Ireland and became an important part of the island’s economy with many families relying on this industry.
Irish musicians The Clancy Brothers were often seen wearing them and made several appearances on American television clad in their trademark jumpers which fuelled the demand for them stateside. It became difficult to keep up with the growing demand around the world! Back then, each sweater took 3-6 weeks to complete, containing approximately 100,000 stitches.
They were even influencing Parisian designers by the 1960s.
There are very few people still knitting jumpers by hand on a commercial basis but hand knitted jumpers are still available at local Irish craft initiatives.
They are most often referred to as Fisherman sweaters in North America.
We have a great vintage Aran sweater and matching tam available in the shop from Carbery Knitwear.
Patricia (Vernon) Crowley was an Irish fashion designer born in 1933. Encouraged by her mother, she studied fashion design at the Grafton Academy in Dublin. After graduation, she became an air hostess and was onboard the first ever transatlantic flight out of Ireland.
She married Conor Crowley in 1957 and had to quit her job as it was widespread practise that women’s employment contracts were terminated upon marriage. She went on the pill, which was illegal at the time, in a bid to delay starting a family so she could still achieve her goals.
She eventually gained employment again by working for haute couturier Irene Gilbert in 1960, where she learned a lot about the fashion business during the 8 years she was there.
Pat launched her own knitwear business in 1968 in Dublin. In her store, she sold Valentino and Ungaro alongside her own designs. Demand for her designs grew and she was soon employing 600 knitters. She put an innovative spin on traditional woollen jumpers and was known for her fresh and youthful approach to lace and crochet.
By the eighties, she was bringing her designs to wealthy American clients. She travelled regularly to New York, Dallas and Palm Beach to sell her collections. She attracted the attention of famous families such as the Vanderbilts and the Kennedys, as well as many politicians wives.
Crowley received the Satzenbrau Designer of the Year award in 1990, by which time she was synonymous with Irish fashion.
At home in the 1990s she became known for simple, practical daywear using Irish tweed from McNutts in Donegal and small handweavers such as Lisbeth Mulcahy in Dingle, as well as ultra feminine evening wear and wedding dresses.
She gained media attention and appeared on TV shows such as Head to Toe in 1992, which was the prime Irish fashion TV show.
One of Crowley's most well known customers was fashion icon Miranda Guinness, (Countess of Iveagh) known to be one of Ireland's best dressed. When asked about being dressed by Crowley she said she felt "frightfully happy" dressed in her designs. Iveagh also talked about how Crowley had a way of selling her designs by charming the husbands at spending more money than they anticipated on their wives.
She was sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1999 and her health rapidly declined. Her shop closed in 2000 and she passed away in 2013.