Celebrate Irish Vintage Couture
How do you celebrate St Patrick’s Day? I’m celebrating by adding to the Vintage Finds You collection. My latest find left me quite overwhelmed. I saw this beautiful white daisy print on a background of black hiding on a rail. Picking it up, I knew instantly this was something special as it weighed a ton. The label said Mary O’Donnell along with another tag (you only see this on very special pieces) with the precise measurements of the dress. Once home, I searched the web to find Mary O’Donnell was no ordinary dress designer. My heart skipped a beat as I discovered she was originally from Kilcar, Co Donegal. She spun wool and cloth while still a child and emigrated to New York as a teenager.
She did well in her career. In 1970 Mary presented her collection at a charity show in the home of Senator Edward Kennedy. All her design hallmarks were visible, such as hand made crochet skirts and dresses, threaded through with coloured silk ribbon and crochet flowers. The US and the Kennedy clan played an important role in Mary O’Donnell’s career. She secured a place in the house of Mainbocher, one of the most exclusive couture houses in the US where she remained for two and a half years before returning to Ireland.
On returning to Dublin, she spent some time with Sybil Connolly, and then opened her own premises on Dawson Street. In 1965 The Sunday Times fashion writer Ernestine Carter described O’Donnell’s clothes as “unashamedly pretty with refreshing innocence”. The fabrics she used were those long associated with Ireland – linen, lace and crochet. All the embroidery was done in Co Donegal, and the crochet work came from a number of homes in the greater Dublin area. As much as possible, fabrics were created specially for her. This special piece will be preserved for my personal collection along with other irreplaceable pieces in my collection of the Irish Couture Circle.
There’s a sense of pride in telling the story of incredible Irish talented people who’s fabulous vintage couture pieces have lasted the test of time. Following Ireland’s independence in 1922 there was a surge of pride and interest in Irish design and textiles. The Grafton Academy of Fashion Design, Ireland’s first fashion academy was established in 1938. The 1950s are often referred to as the ‘golden years of Irish design’ Various factors contributed to the success of the Irish fashion industry at this time.
Sybil Connolly who trained as a dressmaker in London started work at Richard Alan on Grafton St, Dublin, under the French Canadian designer Gaston Mallet on the house couture line. When Mallet left in 1952 Connolly took over, designing the couture line under her own name. Connolly developed a technique of using eight metres of finely pleated handkerchief linen to produce one metre of her distinctive and beautiful pleated, Un-crushable cloth. Indeed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore a pleated Irish linen dress by Sybil Connolly when she sat for her official Whitehouse Portrait in 1970.
There is a limited supply of Irish vintage pieces which have survived the decades gone by. When it comes to shopping for vintage we always look to US and UK and we tend to forget about the amazing Irish designers who blazed a trial across the world. I get so excited when I come across a piece of vintage with an Irish label such at Vera Hennessy from Dublin. The Ib Jorgensen couture dress (pictured below) takes my breath away. It is hand beaded with a celtic motif across the neckline and yards upon yards of silk jersey flowing the to floor. This piece would not be out of place at the Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective in Collin Barracks. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Danish born Ib Jorgensen was one of Ireland’s leading fashion designers, attracting a clientele from amongst the wealthiest and stylish women in the country.
Another surprise find was an understated wool dress using Carrickmacross lace to spectacular effect. This exquisite dress was created by Irene Gilbert. The Thurles-born Irene Gilbert shop was a must-stop for any Irish stylish woman in the 50’s. Irene developed a special relationship with the most influential style icon of all the time – Grace Kelly. One of her most famous creations, a Carrickmacross lace evening dress commissioned by the Princess was featured in the Grace Kelly retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
I also have been lucky enough to have been bequeathed other pieces from the Irish Couturier Thomas Wolfangle who sadly passed away last year. My mum discovered Mr Wolfangle in the 80’s. He measured up to her exacting standards and they developed a lifelong friendship. I have fond memories of watching them negotiating on the length of a skirt to the nearest millimetre and choosing buttons could take a serious amount of time. His dresses are exquisitly made with the finest material and incredible craftsmanship.
Another favourite find is this John Rocha skirts suit from the 80s. The catwalk is awash with the 80s influences and no one did it better than our adopted son of Dublin. The next time you come across a vintage piece with an Irish label, don’t discard, treasure it and wear with pride. Why not ask your mother or grandmother about their favourite Irish designer. They may still have pieces you can bring to life again which will have a wonderful history of their own.