Sybil Connolly - Dublin's Dior

Forging a path for Irish designers

Sian McInerney (opens in new window) (the Hunt Museum)

Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly (24 January 1921 - 6 May 1998) put Ireland on the international fashion map in the 1950s. A true entrepreneur, Sybil brought Irish fabrics to the fore, using traditional baínín wool, tweed, flannel, crochet and linen in her innovative couture designs.

The story of Sybil Connolly's success was unique especially as her rise to fame occurred in the Irish economic and social environment of the 1950-60s.

Then, Ireland was far from the world fashion capitals in both distance and influence. Ireland was still a relatively new state, under the strong influence of the church and, although modernising, the population was still largely rural.

However, Sybil was always metropolitan in her outlook and held a strong belief that Ireland and an Irish woman could compete on the world stage. With this belief and a dedication to Irish fabrics, she would go on to design couture lines that championed Irish design.1

Sybil the Designer

Sybil Connolly was born in Wales to Irish and English parents. She began an apprenticeship aged 17 at Irish run company Bradley & Co based in London. She even assisted at royal fittings at Buckingham Palace.

Sybil eventually returned to Ireland in 1940 to work at Richard Alan, a leading ladies' fashion house in Dublin. Sybil's fashion success began when in 1952 she became the head designer at Richard Alan. This was her first couture line. The inspiration for the collection was simply Ireland, influenced by traditional Irish garments made in traditional fabrics.

The success of this first collection was aided by some other influential Irish women and some serendipitous encounters.

Carmel Snow, the Irish born editor of Harper's Bazaar, was instrumental in convincing the Philadelphia Fashion Group to travel to Dublin to see the first fashion show by Sybil Connolly. Dunsany Castle was the fairytale setting for the fashion show, which was facilitated by another formidable woman, Lady Dunsany. Support from Eleanor Lambert, an American publicist and long time friend of Sybil cemented her success in the lucrative US market.

The significance of this coverage of Irish design and fabrics at the time was truly remarkable and should be justly remembered. The momentum continued and, in 1956, the March cover of Harper's Bazaar had the title 'Spring Collections Paris, London, Dublin, Italy', indicating that the fashion world would await the collections coming out of Dublin as much as those coming from Paris or Milan.

Cover of the fashion magazine. A female glove with colourful strokes on the fingers part holds white piece of paper with the words: 'Spring Collections Paris, London, Dublin, Italy'.

Sybil's signature fabrics

The success of her first collection and the acceptance of vernacular traditional Irish fabrics ensured that her dedication to these fabrics.

Her dedication to Irish craft never waivered throughout her career. Donegal embroidery, handwoven Carrickmacross lace, Donegal tweeds, Báinín wool and most notably her own Handkerchief Pleated Linen were incorporated into her designs. She catapulted Irish material and craftwork onto the world fashion stage in a way that was previously unthinkable.

A moss-green pleated linen evening dress with three-quarter length sleeves and a round high neckline. There is a green satin waistband with a bow and a full skirt which has green satin piping between the horizontal bands of pleated linen

Interestingly, Sybil's dedication to Irish fashion heritage started with a fortuitous meeting with a woman in Connemara, in the West of Ireland.

While travelling through Connemara to source tweed, and taking inspiration from the mountain colours, Sybil stopped her car to give sweets to some children. The children's mother came to the door of her cottage, wearing a wonderful bright, red flannel skirt. She pointed Sybil to the village shop where she bought a bale of the Irish fabric. A glorious red evening skirt, teamed with a white Irish linen blouse, modelled by Anne Gunning was the result.

Later that year, Anne Gunning, considered the most beautiful model of the 1950s, graced the cover of Life Magazine under the headline 'Irish Invade Fashion World'.

Sybil Connolly Interview, Emer O'Kelly (Presenter), Ireland's National Television and Radio Broadcaster, In Copyright

Sybil would go on to develop a technique of pleating handkerchief linen resulting in exquisite gowns and skirts, that used linen's innate creasing ability to create garments that were uncrushable. She also used perfectly tailored tweed to design couture suits, coats and capes that made it into the pages of Life Magazine, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Sybil continued to support the use of Irish vernacular fabrics such as linen and tweed, as well as lace and crochet. Nearly all of these created by small cottage industry workers. Crochet from women employed in their homes and lace from the nuns at Carrickmacross. Sybil Connolly employed around 100 women craftworkers, many working from home, allowing them to provide, work and care for their families.

Sybil Connolly's life and work tell an important story of the success of an Irish woman and Irish fabrics while, interestingly, also gives insights into the lives of Irish women, from those who were involved in their creation to those who wore and cherished them.

The women that wore her designs

During the 1950s and 1960s, her designs were celebrated across the world, most notably in the United States. Many women wore Sybil Connolly’s designs: from America's first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to actresses such as Adele Astaire (in the musical Funny Face) and Julie Andrews (in the film The Sound of Music).

Sybil's signature styles were captured by the top photographers of the time. World renowned fashion photographer Richard Dormer photographed Sybil's white crochet dress and red full length cape for the cover of Life Magazine in 1953.2

Sybil - the entrepreneur

The appreciation and recognition of Sybil's designs continued into the 1960s.

When the prevailing fashion of the 60s began to diverge from Sybil's signature style, her focus shifted from couture fashion to interior design. It is in this part of her life that some contradictions are evident.

Sybil's practiced feminist credentials, of a woman operating in what had been a very male-dominated sector, seemed contrary to her refusal to modernise her designs. Sybil was a shrewd independent and successful business woman but it was probably her conservatism that caused the popularity of her couture line to wane. She did however have the power and imagination to reinvent herself, moving her creativity to interior design products. She collaborated on homeware products with Tiffany, Waterford Crystal, and wallpaper fabric designers Brunschwig & Fils.

The importance of Sybil Connolly in forging a path for Irish Designers and Irish women cannot be underestimated. Sybil Connolly’s contributed to the story of Irish women, exports, textiles, fashion design and social history. Her story is impressive and deserves to be told, as well as her maintaining her legacy.