Honouring the women of 1916 in the 'Uniformity' exhibition
Our Fashion Editor went in search of the inspiring stories behind 'Uniformity,' an exhibition which launches in the windows of Arnotts on Henry Street, celebrating the women of 1916 and the unique story of Cumann na mBan volunteers central to the Easter Rising.
When Griffith College came up with the idea of setting their second year fashion design students a project to create modern-day outfits inspired by 12 brave and spirited Cumann na mBan volunteers and their involvement in the 1916 Rising, they probably never suspected how it would resonate with the group and spur them into research which brings the women's memory alive a century later.
Designing clothes in an olive green wool similar to what they wore during the Rising is one thing, but it's what the students discovered when they stepped back in time that has made this project unique.
Prisoners from the Easter Rising were temporarily held in the jail in the Wellington Barracks, off Dublin's South Circular Road. The barracks was later renamed after Arthur Griffith and is where Griffith College is now located. The 12 students were busy having their finished designs photographed when I called to their studio located in the former cavalry room of the red brick barracks.
Róisín Bowling drew the name of Margaret Skinnider out of the hat and was quickly smitten by the Scot drawn into the Glasgow division of Cumann na mBan by Countess Markievicz. Róisín's fitted dress and caped coat trimmed with a brown leather belt are striking and convey a modernity mixed with nostalgia. However, it is the hole in the dress that attracts my attention.
"Margaret Skinnider was shot three times in the shoulder on April 26 as she was leading an arson attack on the British-occupied Harcourt Street," explains Róisín, whose grandfather, Brendan Duke, was born the weekend of the Easter Rising.
Margaret Skinnider (pic 7, right) was the kind of fearless action heroine that the Hollywood scriptwriters would have loved. Often dressed as a boy, Skinnider smuggled bomb-making equipment around her body and detonators in her hat. She was a gifted markswoman and took up her place as a sniper on the roof of the College of Surgeons on St Stephen's Green as the Rising commenced. Skinnider and Markievicz were the only women in combatant roles during the Rising, explains Róisín. Margaret was the only female wounded in action and was shot three times attempting to burn down houses on Harcourt Street to try and cut off the retreat of British soldiers who had planted a machine gun post on the roof of the University church.
"I incorporated traditional elements of the Cumann na mBan uniform and coupled it with a strong contemporary silhouette," explains Róisín, adding "Margaret's uniform was cut in half to treat her wounds. This imagery inspired my ideas of separating the uniform to display her wound as a badge of honour."
Skinnider's bravery was mentioned in the dispatches sent to the GPO. National school teachers also have a lot to thank Margaret for because in 1949, she fought for the rights of women and won a common incremental pay scale for female and male teachers.
The angular shapes of the sails of the gun running boat, the Asgard, informed the design of Safiye Salih who formed twists and folds in the panel of the coat for Mary Spring Rice (pic 4). Mary was one of those unlikely revolutionaries: her father was the 2nd Baron Monteagle of Brandon in Co Kerry. Together with Molly Childers (pictured with her in the boat) they raised £2,000 for 900 Mauser rifles for the Irish Volunteers. Spring Rice maintained her aristocratic facade and society connections. Her home was a safe house used by the Irish Republican Army fighters during the War of Independence, including Michael Collins. She suffered from TB and died in a sanatorium in Wales in 1924. Her coffin was draped in the tricolour and escorted by an IRA guard of honour.
Christian Iannelli drew the name of Countess Markievicz (pic 1), undoubtedly one of the most important female leaders of the Rising. He softly draped the back of her coat, but it's strong and powerful to the front and features a statement pocket "large enough for her powerful revolver which she kissed goodbye so fondly, as she handed it over to British soldiers upon surrender," explains Christian.
Rosie Hackett (pic 3) worked in a print shop, so student Boya Wang examined the shapes of the typesetting blocks, focussing on the letter A for her silhouette. Now familiar to Dubliners after a bridge over the Liffey was named in her honour, the waistline of the Rosie Hackett dress features embellishment designed from the repeated diagonal pattern found on the bridge.
"Rose McNamara (pic 5) was Officer in Command of a female battalion and led her group of 21 women as they marched in uniform along with the men to surrender," says Cathy McEvoy from Waterford. Cathy's design is based on the aesthetic details of Rose's 1916 uniform "combined with the sensory experience of being in a distillery during gunfire."
Diana Kazimagomedova was raised in St Petersburg which, a year after the 1916 Rising, was the starting point for the February Revolution. Diana drew the name of Jennie Wyse Power (pic 6) who in 1914 was elected the first president of Cumann na mBan. Jennie ran the Irish Farm Produce Company restaurant and shop from her home at 21 Henry Street and it was here that the 1916 Proclamation was finalised and signed by six of the leaders (Joseph Plunkett signed later).
Captivated by Jennie's story, Diana took inspiration form the original tailored collar and revere of the Cumann na mBan uniform. I was taken by her detailed work and the addition of raw edged flower brooches on which you can see the opening lines of the Proclamation.
Natasha McGregor was successful in contacting the family of Elizabeth O' Farrell (pic 2), the nurse who was airbrushed out of history when she was taken out of the surrender photograph which went global. The Holles Street midwife played a significant role in the Rising. She was one of the last women to evacuate the GPO, along with dispatch carrier Julia Grenan and Winifred Carney, both of whom feature in the exhibition along with Nora Connolly O'Brien (pic 8), Nancy O'Rahilly and Helena Molony. Their designs were completed by Lexy Hunt, Megan Lynch, Katie Byrne, Siu-Hong Mok and Aurelie Yolande and can be seen, along with the outfits pictured here, in the windows of Arnotts in Dublin's Henry Street.
■ The exhibition runs until the end of March
Photography by Johnny Savage