Sybil Connolly Irish fashion history

Irish Designers of the 1950s

Sybil Connolly

Sybil Connolly Irish fashion designer

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.

Sybil Connolly life magazine Irish fashion 1950s
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.

sybil connolly
                          ‘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?

Sybil Connolly 1950s pleated dress

Irene Gilbert

Irene Gilbert Irish fashion designer

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.

Digby Morton

Henry Digby Morton was born in Dublin in 1906. However, his professional career evolved outside of Ireland.

He was a London-based fashion designer and among the pioneers of ready-to-wear fashions in the 1950s. He helped to establish the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, an early forerunner of the British Fashion Council. He reinvented the tweed suit, which was previously a frumpy staple of country life, into something chic and even avant-garde.
His contemporary Hardy Amies said of Morton: "[His] philosophy was to transform the suit from the strict tailleur, or the ordinary country tweed suit with its straight up and down lines, uncompromising and fit only for the moors, into an intricately cut and carefully designed garment that was so fashionable that it could be worn with confidence at the Ritz”.
He started his career working for Selfridges and Liberty in London. He then worked as a sketch artist for Jay’s, recreating Parisian fashions. By 1928, he'd become designer for couture house Gray Paulette & Shingleton (later renamed Lachasse to make it sound more French!). Morton created a debut collection featuring Ardara Donegal tweed in what were then radical colour combinations such as bright greens and pale blues blended with traditional browns. He left Lachasse after 5 years and set up his own house in 1933.
He maintained active during WWII as a couturier but also responded to the need for affordable clothing, respecting guidelines of rationing and utility. He designed a collection of utility clothes for the government, a uniform for the Women’s Volunteer Service, and overalls for female factory workers.
Morton – along with other members of IncSoc – also designed costumes for a number of British films, including the wartime production Ships with Wings and post-war movies Maytime in Mayfair and The Astonished Heart. Showcasing the work of couturiers was seen as a way to convince other manufacturers and the general public of the fashion value of utility designs.
In 1953, US manufacturer Hathaway asked Morton to design a women's range.
He copied men's shirts, tailored and adjusted for the female form and made in bright colours with contrasting bowties. The success of this innovation landed him the Time magazine epithet: 'Daring Digby’.
In 1957, Morton closed his London couture house and set up another UK venture Reldan-Digby Morton (later Reldan). The brand was successful on both sides of the Atlantic and created the aura of couture in ready-to-wear styles. The more adventurous designs – bright yellow and black striped suits and jet black beach coats – appealed to a market of playboys and dandies.
He set up Digby Morton Menswear in 1963 and produced a range of casual "easy-care" clothing, taking advantage of the firm's recently-developed Trevira wash-and-wear fibre, and used the same skill he'd displayed on women's suiting to break conventions.
Digby Morton died in 1983, at the age of 77.

John Cavanagh 

John Cavanagh was born in county Mayo in the West of Ireland in 1914.

In 1932 at age 18, he became secretary to Anglo-Irish couturier Edward Molyneux, eventually becoming supervisor at his London branch. After this, he became Molyneux’s personal assistant in Paris. He then worked for the British government during WWII.

Between 1947 and 52, he worked as a design assistant to Pierre Balmain.

He opened his own house in London in 1952 in the premises formerly occupied by Molyneux before he closed. He also snagged Molyneux’s staff. He joined other Irish born designers working in London at the time including Digby Morton and Michael Donnellan.

His first collection had six categories and included boleros in piqué for day and in satin for evening, a ballgown in Irish lace studded with crystals, and a white grosgrain coat. The outfits were styled with Dior hats- the first time Dior had allowed his designs to appear with other couturier’s clothing. He became a member of IncSoc just six weeks later- unheard of after just one collection.

A red dress of his appeared in a Gala cosmetics advert and became widely copied, with knock-offs in all price ranges.

He used Irish tweed and lace as well as French silks.

He released a coronation collection the following year, marking Queen Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne. It consisted of dresses made from fabrics by Oliver Messel. Members of aristocracy ordered the dresses for various celebrations. Lady Cornwallis wore his gold brocade gown.

He helped to train Clive Evans before he launched his own career.

He dressed many film stars of the day including Vivien Leigh, Doris Day and Gertrude Lawrence.

His personal assistant said that his designs were like “Paris in London. There was a lightness of touch, a feminine delicacy, a fragility unlike the work of any other of London’s Couturiers”.

He made memorable wedding dresses for Katherine Worsley and Princess Alexandra.

He attempted to move into the ready to wear sector in the 60s but was ultimately not successful like so many couturiers faced with the same challenge at the time. He retired in 1972 declaring “It’s a pony and trap in a world whizzing round in Minis”.

His archive went to the V&A.

Toronto-born designer Donald Campbell worked for Cavanagh from the mid-50s and opened his own business when Cavanagh retired. He continued creating couture for high profile clients including Princess Diana.

Cavanagh died in 2003.

"Basic", 1963

This jumpsuit was designed by John Cavanagh to promote the film, 'Seven Days in May,' starring Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner. The producer of the film, Ray Stark, approached Eleanor Lambert to assemble seven designers, each from a different country, to design a total look that would represent the fashions of the future. Labeled, 'Seven Days in May,' 7 Years of Prophesy Fashions, 1963-1970, the garments were placed in a 'Time Capsule' or trunk and were not to be opened until May 1, 1970. This outfit, named 'Basic,' is interesting for it is a combination of the antique form of drapery with a 19th-centry pant, forming a futuristic garment that is appropriate for work, travel, and an active lifestyle. - the met 

Neillí Mulcahy 

Neillí Mulcahy was born in Dublin in 1925. She was related to a number of prominent figures in early Irish independence. She studied dressmaking at St. Mary’s College of Domestic Science and later attended the Grafton Academy of Dress Designing. In 1951, she studied fashion in Paris and then spent six months training with Jacques Heim. She recalled that she was made to sew thirty-four buttons on a dress at one sitting, lest her hand position alter and change the finish on the garment.

Upon returning to Dublin in 1952, she opened her own workshop specializing in evening dresses and bridal wear. She collaborated with her friend and milliner Elizabeth Fanagan.

She received an award presented by Elsa Schiaparelli in 1953 as part of the ‘National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association’ show.

Her first collection was launched in 1955 to great acclaim. She reworked traditional fabrics like wool, linen and tweed, which was common in Ireland in the 1950s, with other designers like Sybil Connolly doing the same- whose success Neillí benefitted from. She worked with McNutt, Avoca, McGee and Malloy weavers to produce her fabrics.

Her designs included simple tailored suits with pockets and she often chose bright colours.

She satisfied the overseas (particularly American) demand for a traditional Irish aesthetic that didn’t stray into cliché territory. Neillí acquired a loyal clientele in America and established a mail order business supplying her signature hand woven creations for them.

Her aunt Phyllis Ryan wore Neillí’s dresses on international engagements with her husband Sean T. O’Kelly, the first President of Ireland to be internationally recognised as a full head of state. She wore an exquisite olive green satin and Irish crochet gown to a White House reception dinner in 1959.

She founded the Irish Haute Couture Group with Irene Gilbert and Ib Jorgensen in 1962 to promote Irish fashion to foreign markets.

Mulcahy won a number of contracts to supply women's uniform suits. One of her most celebrated uniforms was her 1963 Aer Lingus air hostesses, made in Kelly green tweed, previously designed by Sybil Connolly.

Mulcahy presented her 1967 collection on a transatlantic liner.

Her designs were exhibited at a society luncheon fashion event in Chicago in 1968.

Her business suffered in the 60s when couture was going out of favour. Her use of Irish fabrics was also seen as old fashioned at this time. She criticized the government for placing heavy duties on Irish fashion exports. Her shop closed in 1969.

She continued her career in fashion, designing for retailers and advising the government on garment production. She also became a Grafton Academy judge at graduate shows.

Her archive was donated to the National Museum.

She passed away in 2012.

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