With her model height, dramatic colouring and natural grace, Sybil Veronica Connolly was fashion personified. From the gentry residing in crumbling castles to waspish ladies-who-lunch, Sybil Connolly’s designs hung in the most famous of wardrobes. She was, without a doubt, the first Irish woman to have the international world of fashion falling at her feet. Coming of age – for lack of a better description – during the golden age of couture, Connolly established her niche early on in her career. As had Chanel (with the boucle suit) and Dior (with the New Look), not to mention Lanvin, Balmain, Yve St. Laurent and his little black dress, Connolly’s use of Irish textiles, including finely pleated linen and Carrickmacross lace, was the staple of her haute couture designs.
Though she is credited with putting Irish fashion on the map, Connolly was not entirely Irish. Born in Swansea, Wales, to an Irish father and an English-Welsh mother, her background was exceedingly ordinary. It was an unfortunate turn of events which brought Connolly to Ireland, arriving after her father’s death, she was placed in a convent school where God and religion were drummed into her, but failed to overshadow her dreamy, creative flair.
Fashion, ironically, took her from Ireland when, in the late 1930s, Connolly arrived in London. Eager to learn from the ground-floor up, she found work at the prestigious firm of Bradley & Co., whose most famous client was Queen Mary. The young apprentice would attend Buckingham Palace fittings, where she was allowed to hold the pins. Returning to Ireland in 1940, she worked for Richard Allan in Dublin, eventually replacing the head designer in 1953. That same year, Connolly’s work was spotted by American buyers.
1953 was the year Connolly held her first major show. Its huge success, covered by Harper’s Bazaar, was attended by the American press, bringing her work to the attention of the coveted American market. Travelling to New York City later in the year, Connolly’s crochet dresses were featured on the cover of Life magazine with the prophetic headline: ‘Irish Invade Fashion World’. Four years later, at the age of thirty-six, Connolly launched her couture label with stars such as Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor wearing her designs. Jacqueline Kennedy, endorsed the designer when she wore a Sybil Connolly creation for an official White House portrait. The First Lady’s outfit of choice was a dress of pleated handkerchief linen, which took nine yards of Irish linen handkerchiefs to create one yard of the uncrushable pleated fabric.
As a nod to her heritage, Connolly pioneered an old-fashioned image of Irish dress, re-designing peasant blouses, flannel petticoats and shawls, to give them a glamorous, contemporary appeal. Designs were created in Dublin, and she employed up to one-hundred women, who mostly worked from home, crocheting and weaving fabric. And, although there was an intricate craft in her designs, Connolly’s prices were lower than European couture.
As her fashion house grew, Connolly turned her Dublin home, number 71 Merrion Square, into a base for her clients, where they were treated to a private viewing of her designs and served jasmine tea by a butler, James. Although she quipped it was ‘the house that linen built’, it was the ‘shop window for Ireland’. In the 1980s, Connolly moved into the luxury goods market, designing pieces for Tiffany & Co., Tipperary Crystal, Brunschwig & Fills and Schumacher.
Although Connolly died at the age of seventy-seven in 1998, her contribution to haute couture and Irish fashion continues to be celebrated in the twenty-first century. Only last year I visited an exhibition of her gowns at Brown Thomas in Dublin and it was a thrill to see the designs, the fabric and a physical example of creativity in person. Connolly’s friend, Desmond Guinness, summed up her appeal: ‘Elegant and wearable, they proved a satisfactory investment, neither dating nor changing from year to year. Connolly always went for beauty and style as opposed to ‘mere’ fashion.’