Thursday 17 October 2019

Founders of Irish fashion

Our fashion editor went behind the scenes of Fashion Radicals, a new exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin which gives insights into the couturiers and designers who put Irish fashion and fabrics onto the world stage six decades ago

Couturier Sybil Connolly photographed at the launch of her US collection in June 1953
Couturier Sybil Connolly photographed at the launch of her US collection in June 1953
A Sybil Connolly outfit
The exhibit also features some of the works by Irene Gilbert
Irene GIlbert with her air lingus uniform
Nellí Mulcahy
Amongst women: Neillí Mulcahy (centre in green) with six of her seven daughters, from left, Máire, Karin, Helen, Orna, Cathy, Anne (Sarah is not present), all wearing Neillí's vintage clothes, in 2007 in Collins Barracks
A dress by Ib Jorgensen
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Robert O'Byrne was having a glass of wine with an American friend in Florida when she mentioned how she had just dropped off some Sybil Connolly dresses, made for her mother, to a local charity shop.

The Meath man was too polite to stand up immediately but they finished their lunch quicker than they might have normally and then rushed back to the charity shop where Robert told the manager, "I'll have those bags back."

These pieces now form part of the new Fashion Radicals exhibition which runs at the Little Museum of Dublin, at St Stephen's Green, until March 25.

Surveying Sybil Connolly's clothes up close is thrilling. This is the woman whom Vogue once described as 'the vitamin C of the Erin-go-Couture movement' and the exhibits provide a glorious incentive to go learn more about the Welsh woman who fell in love with Ireland and subsequently made our indigenous fabrics, like Irish linen, Carrickmacross lace and tweeds, famous the world over because they were viewed as having a contemporary relevance.

A Sybil Connolly outfit
A Sybil Connolly outfit

Sybil dressed US first lady Jackie Kennedy in Irish linen for her official White House portrait, and her couture clients made her a rich woman. Indeed, when she bought her Georgian home and salon on Dublin's Merrion Square, she described as it as 'The House that Linen built'.

Robert O'Byrne was the ideal person to curate the exhibition given his extraordinary Little Black Book and his years writing about fashion. Now a lecturer specialising in the fine and decorative arts, Robert has penned more than a dozen books, and for this fashion curator job it helped enormously that he personally knew almost all of the designers whose work is exhibited on mannequins in a series of installations.

"We have 21 pieces in the exhibition but I could have doubled that if we had had the space," Robert explains. "Everyone was very happy to be involved and just said, 'Yes, love to, great.'"

One of the 'stars' in the exhibition is undoubtedly the eau-de-nil, off-the-shoulder dress in hand-pleated linen on loan from Hilary Weston (née Frayne), the girl from Dublin's Terenure who modelled and married businessman Galen Weston, moved to Canada with her family and later became the 26th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. The dress (pictured right) is important because it is a perfect example of Sybil's signature look which made her a worldwide phenomenon - horizontal, hand-pleated, taffeta-backed handkerchief linen. Robert knew Sybil "quite well. I met her in the early '80s and I got on very well with her and would go and have tea with her in the house on Merrion Square where she introduced me to Eleanor Lambert, who was the great fashion publicist and started the Best Dressed List."

Amongst the fashion radicals and major innovators whose work features in the exhibition is Neillí Mulcahy, (pictured right) who did so much to revolutionise the use of tweed. Her work was singled out by international designer Elsa Schiaparelli when she was a visiting judge at the National Agricultural and Industrial Development in 1953.

From her studio on Dublin's South Frederick Street, Neillí displayed an intuitive genius for using heavy tweeds to great effect. She worked with all the greats from Malloys to Magees in Co Donegal, the same trail which international designers now make in her wake.

Irene GIlbert with her air lingus uniform
Irene GIlbert with her air lingus uniform

Young students who dream about being style innovators will appreciate just how much Neillí thought outside the box, her eye for textures and her bold use of colour. A perfect example of this is the mustard wool coat with two asymmetric ties which is imbued with the same asymmetric aesthetic that fans of COS, the Swedish high street brand, like. Neillí was a visionary and in 1962 she co-founded the Irish Haute Couture Group with Irene Gilbert and Ib Jorgensen, whose work also features in the exhibition.

In his book, After a Fashion, which traces the trajectory of Irish couture from its heyday in the '60s to its eventual demise, Robert chronicled the success of Thurles-born Irene Gilbert (pictured below) whose client list included Princess Grace.

Never having seen Irene's work close up before, it was thrilling to observe the detail in her three pieces (below left) which includes in the centre, a stunning black crepe gown with embroidered blue daisies, the kind of fabric that modern Irish designers like Simone Rocha would love because of its sheer yet tactile, 3D qualities.

The gold dress with the gold shawl, on the left, is particularly interesting as it was made by Irene Gilbert for Anne Parsons, Countess of Rosse for the marriage of her first son, Antony Armstrong-Jones to Princess Margaret in February 1960. Beside the gown you can see a photograph that the family loaned to Robert which shows the Countess wearing the gown, seated beside the late Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace.

The name of Anne Rosse of Birr Castle keeps popping up as major client of Ireland's band of creative couturiers. She spread her style largess widely but sadly, with time, couture proved too expensive for most people and there was a move to ready-to-wear, prêt-à-porter, clothes. The high street had arrived.

Fashion Radicals has been supported by Debenhams, and the walls in the two-roomed exhibition are covered with a rich tapestry of photos, magazine covers, newspaper articles and quotes from the designers. Do make sure to watch the monitor with videos of Robert's BBC documentaries from 2000.

There are photos of the Titian-haired model Rosemarie Scully who was a true Irish model mould-breaker. Rosemarie was the house model for Balmain in Paris and she later married Sean Mulcahy, brother of designer Neillí, and became an important art historian on Spanish paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Also in the exhibition are pieces by Clodagh O'Kennedy from Co Mayo, who was known by her first name, and made a name for herself for 'luxury minimalism', knitwear guru Michelina Stacpoole who has only just retired, and Mary O'Donnell from Kilcar, who Robert credits with "single-handedly making crochet sexy".

With the exception of couturier Ib Jorgensen (his dress is pictured below), all of the designers in the exhibition are women. Robert says, "My main thrust in the whole exhibition is to show how young people in a very depressing world in Ireland in the 1950s, at a time when women had to resign their jobs if they got married, they started their own fashion businesses and enjoyed international success.

A dress by Ib Jorgensen

These women are role models and the exhibition is an opportunity to demonstrate that you can take what might be perceived as a minor field or profession and make it something major, that you can become the promulgators of an alternative vision for Ireland. This exhibition is saying that you can do it if you have the focus and drive and energy, you can make fashion a successful career."

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