Sybil Connolly 1921- 1998
In her latest piece for STABLE of Ireland, Deirdre McQuillan looks at the extraordinary work using Irish Linen created by Irish Fashion Designer Sybil Connolly.
Fashion designer Sybil Connolly was the first to put Irish fashion - particularly Irish fabrics – on the international map. She was not only Ireland’s first female entrepreneur and certainly the most admired and most travelled Irishwoman in the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but her name is indelibly associated with pleated linen, the textile which became her hallmark and made her famous. She called her magnificent house at 71 Merrion Square, her home and headquarters for more than forty years, “the house that pleated linen built” and lined the walls of her couture salon with the fabric.
Her fine, featherweight handkerchief linen was woven by Spence Bryson in Northern Ireland, a company well known for supplying royalty, the Vatican, the Savoy Hotel and other illustrious customers. (It will celebrate its 150th birthday in July this year). Connolly remembered squeezing the linen in her palm for the first time and when it sprung back crushed, it prompted the idea of making crushed linen a feature. A technique was devised to replicate in linen the ridged paper of confectionery cups with a heat process to establish permanent pleats.
Pleated horizontally and occasionally banded in satin, the linen could then be used for dresses and skirts. Its greatest virtue was that anything made in this way could be rolled up, shaken out “packed into a small duffel bag and emerge unscathed” according to Harper’s Bazaar in June 1958.
First Love, the first dress made in this way to be shown in the US created great excitement. It used three hundred men’s linen handkerchiefs in more than five thousand pleats and its beautiful simplicity and novelty established Connolly’s reputation and made fashion history. Her success has often been compared to that of Mario Fortuny in Venice, famous for his Delphos pleated silk dresses prefiguring the Pleats Please of Issey Miyake.
Connolly used linen glass cloths very effectively too – a dress called Kitchen Fugue for summer 1954 had a billowing skirt made from lengths of striped linen tea towelling, another witty reimagining of a mundane everyday item.
Her pleated linen dresses have retained their value, enduring style and desirability more than half a century later. In 1957 a pleated linen ballgown was priced at $350 in the US; on 1stDibs online site, a handkerchief linen ballgown from the 1960s currently carries a price tag of €2,421. An achievement not to be sneezed at.