The three Irish women who put Ireland on the fashion map

In their heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, fashion designers Sybil Connolly, Irene Gilbert and Neillí Mulcahy – three notable Irish women and members of the Irish high fashion group – dressed some of the most famous women of the time, including Jacqueline Kennedy (who wore a Sybil Connolly Irish linen pleated dress for her official White House portrait), Liz Taylor, Julie Andrews and Princess Grace of Monaco, and some of the wealthiest women in society in Ireland and the United States. The level of success they enjoyed was remarkable, considering they were working at a time when Ireland was a small island nation with a depressed economy.

The three designed versions of the Aer Lingus uniform: Connolly in 1945; Gilbert twice, in 1958 and 1966; and Mulcahy in 1963.

Irene Gilbert designed the Aer Lingus uniforms in 1966, a two-piece suit in light ivy green tweed. / Irish Photographic Archive

Thanks to the rising star of Sybil, in March 1956, Harper’s Bazaar ran a slogan declaring: “SPRING COLLECTIONS: PARIS LONDON DUBLIN ITALY”, elevating the Irish city to sit alongside Europe’s fashion capitals.

By 1957, Connolly was earning $500,000 a year, most of which came from his American clients.

Carmel Snow, the Irish editor of Harper’s Bazaar in the United States, became a big supporter of Connolly’s work after attending a fashion show at Dunsany Castle, which the American fashion press was invited to attend.

As a result, Sybil’s dramatic red tweed Kinsale cape and white Irish crochet dress covered Life Magazine (above) in 1953 with the headline: ‘Irish Invade Fashion World’. Richard Avedon’s photographs of Connolly’s fashions also ran in the Harper’s Bazaar October 1953 edition.

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Vogue featured Sybil Connolly’s linen designs in March 1957.
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Models at a 1958 Sybil Connolly fashion show in Merrion Square. / Irish Photographic Archive

Building on this success, Sybil travels to the United States, where she meets Eleanor Lambert (the famous fashion publicist and creator of the “Best Dressed List”) who introduces her to affluent clientele and luxury retailers such as Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. The United States quickly became its most lucrative market and played a central role in its financial success. At its peak, Sybil employed over 100 women in Ireland to create its textiles and clothing. This – in the 1950s, when over 400,000 Irish people were forced to emigrate for work – was no small feat.

Each yard of this dimensionally stable fabric required nine yards of linen to create and was often dyed in bright tones for her romantic evening wear. The first pleated handkerchief linen garment shown in America was a white evening dress dubbed “First Love”. It required 300 handkerchiefs and contained over 5,000 pleats. Time The magazine described it as “the dress that brought down the house” at the Waldorf Astoria in March 1953. When Sybil bought her HQ at 71 Merrion Square, she called it “The house that flax built” in tribute to its characteristic fabric.

Sybil Connolly sketches for the Hunt Museum, which raises funds to preserve her clothing.

By the 1970s, Sybil’s popularity as a fashion designer had waned. She turned to interior design, focusing on tableware collections for Tiffany & Co, glass for Tipperary Crystal and linens for Brunschwig & Son. She has also co-authored books on Irish homes, gardens and crafts. She died on May 6, 1998 in Merrion Square and gradually faded from memory. Recently, however, with Gillian Anderson and Tilda Swinton wearing her robes and The Hunt Museum in Limerick hosting a tribute in 2021 (the centenary of her birth), there has been renewed interest in Connolly. Her quip – “I have to buy my diamonds and aim for myself – and that’s how I like it” – sums up not only her success, but also her independence and innate self-confidence.

At her peak, Sybil Connolly employed over 100 women in Ireland to create her textiles and clothing. That, in the 1950s, when over 400,000 Irish people were forced to emigrate for work, was no small feat.

This wedding dress was designed for a family friend by Irene Gilbert in 1967.

Irene Gilbert was ten years older than Connolly and preceded her as Ireland’s first seamstress. An early apprenticeship with a court seamstress in London influenced the impeccable finish of her tailoring: she always maintained that the inside was as important as the outside of her garments. After World War II she returned to Dublin, opening a millinery shop in South Frederick Street. After a fashion show at Jammet’s restaurant in May 1950, where she created dresses to complement her hats, she moved on to making exquisite bespoke garments.

Her loyal customers included wealthy members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, of whom her most ardent and stylish supporter was Anne, Countess of Rosse, a striking society beauty who loved clothes and frequented the most famous designers in the world. era, including Charles James. The two became close friends, with Anne calling Irene by the diminutive “Gilly”. Today Birr Castle holds items from the Countess’s fashion collection, including a range of dresses by Gilbert.

Like Connolly, Gilbert frequented Irish textile mills, ordering colorful tweeds created to his specifications. She once sent a bright blue hydrangea to the Avoca Handweavers to illustrate the shade she needed. She was an extremely gifted designer, draping directly on the stand (like Madeleine Vionnet). Although her clothes may have had the appearance of simplicity, they were expertly executed and technically accomplished.

Gilbert thrived for two decades, dressing royalty (Princess Grace of Monaco) and high society, but by the late 1960s she saw the era of couture fade. Faced with rising costs and falling demand, she retired in 1969 and moved to Malta and then to Cheltenham, where she died in 1985. She had been a design pioneer, transforming Dublin from a backwater of fashion into a city where stylish women could buy chic couture clothes. executed to the highest standards.

Like Connolly, Irene Gilbert frequented Irish textile mills, ordering colorful tweeds created to her specifications. She once sent a bright blue hydrangea to the Avoca Handweavers to illustrate the exact shade she needed.

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A 1960s Neilli Mulcahy design. / Neilli Mulcahy Archives

Neillí Mulcahy had a modern, functional aesthetic that was younger than that of Connolly or Gilbert but no less accomplished. She was a designer who married standard Parisian tailoring techniques with traditional Irish fabrics and was renowned for her bold use of color and native tweeds from factories such as McNutt and Avoca Handweavers.

Her simple minimalist dresses, streamlined collarless coats and poncho-style capes in bright, upbeat hues were highly coveted. Mulcahy was also known for her evening wear in Irish linen, cotton poplin and cotton piqué. Trained at the Grafton Academy, she also trained in Paris in the studio of Jacques Heim (the designer who invented the bikini).

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A 1969 Neilli Mulcahy design. / Neilli Mulcahy Archives

In 1952, Mulcahy opened her own salon on South Frederick Street and received a boost when Elsa Schiaparelli selected her as an award recipient at the National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association Show. She had a loyal American clientele whom she served by mail order, shipping handwoven tweed garments across the Atlantic. She was modest and hardworking, with a very practical side, insisting that women, like men, needed pockets.

As with Gilbert, Mulcahy saw that by the late 1960s couture was perceived as expensive and old-fashioned and closed his salon. She continued to work, designing with a major retailer and as a government adviser on the fashion industry. She donated her archives to the National Museum of Ireland, which honored her with a retrospective in 2007.

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One of the looks from Neillí Mulcahy’s spring 1963 collection. / Irish Photographic Archive

The entrepreneurial instincts of Sybil Connolly, Irene Gilbert and Neillí Mulcahy were a vital part of the success of the fledgling Irish fashion industry. All of them have participated in major fashion and trade shows in the United States, often alongside Parisian designers, against whom they have stood up, in terms of finish and design.

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A 1958 report in the Chicago Sun-Times on the three women’s collections. / Archives Neilli Mulcahy

For all three women, their Irish identity was central to their success: they remained based in Dublin, used Irish fabrics and named their designs with Irish titles. They made Irish fashion and fabrics internationally desirable and created work for skilled artisans. These exceptional designers have awakened the fashion world to the potential of Irish design, textiles and craftsmanship – a legacy that should be celebrated to honor their unique contribution.

This article originally appeared in the spring issue of IMAGE magazine.

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