Venturing outside the Irish Aesthete’s customary sphere, today we consider the career of Irish couturier Sybil Connolly who sixty years ago this month came to international prominence following a fashion show in County Meath. ‘Ireland,’ wrote former American Vogue editor Bettina Ballard in her 1960 memoir In My Fashion, ‘was a completely unexpected centre for fashion for everyone but Carmel Snow. We were drawn en-masse to Dublin by the personable, milk-skinned Irish charmer called Sybil Connolly who showed a small collection made of Irish tweeds and linens in Dunsany Castle and bewitched us all into buying models or filling our editorial pages with them.’
It comes as no surprise that the incomparable Carmel Snow, outstanding editor of Harper’s Bazaar for over a quarter century, should have championed Sybil since she too was Irish, having been born in Dalkey, County Dublin in 1887 (for more about Snow’s life and work I recommend Penelope Rowlands’ 2005 biography A Dash of Daring). Presumably she and the designer had met when the latter first visited New York in 1952 and thereafter they remained friends. Certainly Snow was responsible for ensuring a large group of American buyers and journalists, en route to Paris for the couture shows, stopped off in Ireland to see the work of a rising Irish star.
After Sybil Connolly’s July 1953 fashion show, Carmel Snow wrote enthusiastically in her syndicated column of what she and the others present had been shown: ‘Miss Connolly is lovely, with jet black, curling hair and amazingly grey eyes. She came to America last spring and went back to Dublin with many orders. Today she has her foot firmly planted on the ladder of international success – a success that gives one a glow.’ As for the clothes, Snow attributed their appeal to a number of factors: ‘Her integrity in using exclusively Irish materials and using them with strict relevance to native needs; her imaginative adaptation of traditional Connemara garments for contemporary use; her colossal capacity for hard work; her respect for native craftsmanship and the age-old independence of weaver and dyer, and a parallel determination to guide and suggest where she is far too intelligent to demand.’
Throughout her career Sybil was fortunate to have women of influence and authority offering their support in this way. For example, the most powerful woman in American public relations Eleanor Lambert was a close friend for decades (indeed, it was through Sybil that I came to know Eleanor and to sit on the adjudicating panel for her International Best Dressed List – but all that is perhaps for another occasion). Then there were the well-connected women who helped by buying the clothes and promoting her name, not least Sheila, Lady Dunsany who offered the use of beautiful Dunsany Castle for that show in July 1953. (I remember Sheila Dunsany’s wry amusement as she told me some months before her death in July 1999 that Sybil, whose Welsh mother’s maiden name was Phillips, liked to claim an affinity since this was also Sheila’s family name). Then look at the pictures above and note that in the first of these the models photographed by Norman Parkinson for Vogue in July 1954 are Ladies Melissa and Caroline Wyndham-Quin, daughters of the sixth Earl of Dunraven, while that below, taken by Henry Clarke, shows one-time model Anne Gunning who by this date was married to English politician Sir Anthony Nutting.
Sybil Connolly’s signature design was a dress made from pleated handkerchief linen. She used to say that she first discovered this featherweight fabric in a Northern Irish factory where it had been manufactured many years earlier for the crowned heads of Europe, but after the First World War ‘there weren’t enough of them left around.’ Sybil had the linen tightly pleated to produce lengths which were thed used to make clothes. Nine yards of linen were required to produce one yard of finished pleated material. The first garment made in this way to be shown in the United States, a white evening dress called First Love, required three hundred handkerchiefs and contained more than five thousand pleats (see bottom picture which shows Sybil wearing the item).
The great merit of her pleated linen was that it was uncrushable – and virtually indestructible. I recently came across one of her dresses in a box in Birr Castle; it had been made for the late Anne Rosse. Although not worn for decades after a quick shake the dress fell into place and looked much as it must have done when first produced. Harper’s Bazaar noted in June 1958 that a Connolly pleated linen skirt ‘will pack into a small duffle bag and emerge unscathed.’ Sybil’s pleated linen is as remarkable a contribution to fashion history as was Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos pleated silk dress half a century earlier and will similarly be forever associated with the name of one designer.
As can be seen by the two pictures immediately above, Sybil did not only use pleated linen, but also worked with other fabrics, the majority of them associated with Ireland. So, for example, she bought bales of red flannel traditionally used for petticoats in Connemara and had the material made into quilted skirts which were then teamed with white cambric blouses and black shawls to create an early version of peasant chic. She was not above using seemingly mundane material: a dress called Kitchen Fugue from her summer 1954 collection, for example, had a full skirt made from lengths of striped tea towels. But her clothes more often featured the likes of hand-dyed tweed and hand-made Carrickmacross lace and crochet.
In her heyday – the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, Sybil Connolly was internationally renowned and enjoyed huge success, especially in the United States where her clientele included members of the du Pont, Mellon and Rockefeller families as well as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Russell and Merle Oberon. Jacqueline Kennedy’s official portrait for the White House (painted by Aaron Shikler) shows the former First Lady wearing one of Sybil’s outfits. Although she lived until May 1998 and always kept herself busy through such projects as designing fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils and china for Tiffany, already by 1970 her moment as a fashion leader had come to an end. Still, it is worth remembering just what a pioneer she was for Irish design and how, thanks to a show staged sixty years ago, she turned the global fashion spotlight on this country.
To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of her July 1953 fashion show, I shall be giving a talk on Sybil Connolly at the Little Museum of Dublin next Wednesday 24th July at 7pm. For further information, see www.littlemuseum.ie