Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  August 12, 2018

Ireland’s Fashion Radicals - Exhibition Review

By Emma Kelly

Following an insightful lecture on the life and career of Carmel Snow, Editor and Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, The Little Museum of Dublin announced that they would be hosting a fashion exhibition in 2018.  The exhibition, continuing their focus on objects that tell the history of Dublin, would be dedicated to Ireland’s Fashion Radicals of the 20th century. The exhibition ran from 25th January and until 25th March 2018.

Going in to the exhibition I didn’t know what to expect. How would the topic of fashion radicals be tackled? Would it be designer focused or wearer focused? Would the stereotypical Aran knit jumper make an appearance? It definitely didn’t disappoint.

Curated by historian Robert O’Byrne, the exhibition focused on the careers and garment made by Irish fashion designers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s including Sybil Connolly, Irene Gilbert, Ib Jorgensen, Clodagh, Michelina Stacpoole, Mary O’Donnell and Neili Mulcahy.  In Ireland, this period was defined by social and political turmoil, yet several designers initiated their careers, striking out into the Irish fashion industry, seeking to make names for themselves.

The layout of the exhibition was traditional as you would expect with mannequins behind glass, organised into rows with text panels under or beside the displays. Spread out across two adjoining rooms, the exhibition was laid out in a more approachable way (image 1), making greater use of the available space. 

Each designer had dedicated wall space which included text and images of the designers, promotional material and sketches. Examples of their work, for example Mary O’Donnell, were on mannequins close by (image 2).  It was very different to other exhibitions in that you could get much closer to the garments.

Walking around the room I was fascinated by the prevalent use of Irish textiles, which really added to the celebratory tone of the exhibition, celebrating both Irish designers, many of whom largely forgotten, and the use of Irish textiles.  Irish textiles are often discussed in relation to industries such as lace, linen and wool.  The examples on show were more contemporary in style, adapted for a new national and international audience.  For me, they were emblematic of the Irish fashion industry moving forward, taking influence from international fashion but supporting home grown industries, all without an Aran knit jumper in sight.

One of my personal highlights was a green pleated linen gown, designed by Sybil Connolly from the 1960’s.  This was the piece I kept coming back to and re-examining (image 3).  Emblematic of Connolly’s work, it was romantic, feminine and fashioned from Irish textiles.  Pleated linen was Connelly’s trademark and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York has several examples within their collection.  To see such an iconic piece up close was phenomenal.  Another highlight from Sybil Connelly was a promotional photo (image 4) which is in the style of Richard Avedon.  Avedon took fashion photography out of the studio and into the streets, showing fashion in action. Far from the streets of Paris, Connolly’s model found herself in Ireland on a typically cloudy day, but she didn’t seem to let it faze her. I can only imagine what the reaction of passers-by would have been to such a glamourous, and bare shouldered, figure. 

In an exhibition, I like to find out more about an object than initially meets the eyes. This time it was a photo, taken by Cecil Beaton, entitled “Fashion is Indestructible” from Vogue 1941 (image 5).  The image shows a couture model, shot amongst the ruins of a building, wearing an outfit by Irish born designer Digby Morton.  This was exciting as I was never aware of the photo’s Irish connections. The text also made a note of another male designer, John Cavanagh, born in 1914 in Mayo, who worked with Balmain and Molyneux before establishing his own label.  The inclusion of Morton and Cavanagh, as well more recent designers such as Simone Rocha, demonstrates the other side of the coin, in particular those who left Ireland to set up their careers in other countries.  Emigration is an integral part of the Irish story and it was fitting that such designers be included alongside Irish born designers.

One ensemble in particular, although not overly eye catching, had an incredible provenience.  The red woollen suit (image 6) was made by Anne, Countess of Rosse nee Messel and has links to Ireland as well to my University town of Brighton.  Many of Anne and her family’s garments are part of the Brighton Museum collection.  It is impossible to study Fashion and Dress History at Brighton and not know of the Messel’s and their long and illustrious love affair with fashion and the crème de la crème of the industry over the decades.  The inclusion of the suit was an interesting choice, as there was an ensemble created by a woman who wore garments by some of the designers on show including Gilbert and Jorgensen.  Only steps away was the Irene Gilbert gown Anne wore to Buckingham Palace.

The experience of walking around the space, surrounded by Irish fashion, culture, textile and motifs, was insightful as the garments on display did not appear stereotypically Irish and could have stood amongst examples from the world’s fashion capitals such as Paris.  The radicals on show were radicals in their own right, forging careers in uncertain times, taking the road less travelled, creating fashion to celebrate their Ireland and the world.

Although the exhibition was small, I felt reinvigorated to push on in my choice to focus on Irish dress history as for me, the garments in the room stood as testament to the fact that Ireland did once have a flourishing fashion industry and that Ireland does have a part to play in the history of European fashion.

  • Image of the exhibition space.
  • Image of the section dedicated to Mary O’Donnell.
  • Image of the green pleated linen gown by Sybil Connolly circa 1960’s.
  • Image of Connolly clad model. Date unknown.
  • “Fashion is Indestructible' photo by Cecil Beaton 1941.
  • Red woollen suit made by Anne, Countess of Rosse circa 1950’s.

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