HERstory: Sybil Connolly
At the Hunt Museum, we consider ourselves to be custodians of a ‘Sybil archive’, a wealth of material relating to her life and work. The archive includes; original design sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, items from her interior design collaborations and of course her original designs. These items chronicle Sybil Connolly’s story of creativity, entrepreneurship, fortitude and influence, and is an important story of Irish fashion heritage and of women during the 1950s & 1960s.
Herstory is based on the theory that stories and the history of women are more likely to be forgotten and less likely to be written about than those stories about men. Herstory aims to increase the amount of words written about women and their achievements. Sybil Connolly and her worldwide success is such a story, deserving much wider recognition, given the importance of her career to the Irish fashion industry.
Sybil’s designs tell the story of Irish women, the talented dressmakers and craftswomen, the women who wore and cherished her designs and of Sybil herself. Sybil had incredible business acumen, was a skilled designer and influencer. And then there are the many other women who were involved and contributed to her amazing story.
Sybil’s story of success begins when she became head designer of the Richard Alan label in 1952, it would be her first couture line, and the inspiration for her design theme was Ireland. This was a significant moment and her dedication to Irish fabrics and Irish craft never waivered. She developed 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 Baazar. Sybil Connolly’s work and life tell an important story of the success of an Irish woman and Irish fabrics and about the lives of Irish women at the time.
“It all started with a Red Petticoat”
Sybil’s story was also influenced by other women and her story tells as much them as it does about herself. Her dedication to Irish fashion heritage started with a fortuitous meeting with a woman in Connemara. 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 and she pointed Sybil to the village shop where she bought a bale of the Irish fabric. The result was glorious red evening skirt, which she teamed with a white Irish linen blouse and modelled by Anne Gunning, a huge success with the American market. That year Anne Gunning, considered as the most beautiful model of the 1950s would grace the cover of Life Magazine under the headline “Irish Invade Fashion World”.
The significance of this coverage for 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.
Sybil continued to support Irish vernacular fabrics such as linen and tweed but also lace and crochet, all nearly entirely 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’s rise to success was aided by some influential women and other serendipitous encounters. Carmel Snow, was the Irish born editor of Harper’s Bazaar, whose influence on the success of Irish fashion has been equally under-recorded. Snow was instrumental in convincing the Philadelphia Fashion Group to travel to Dublin to see a fashion show by Sybil Connolly. The Dunsany castle fairytale setting for the fashion show was facilitated by another formidable woman, Lady Dunsany, who supported Sybil and bought her designs. Eleanor Lambert, an American publicist and long time friend of Sybil supported her promotion in the US. Undoubtedly, Sybil helped forge a path for Irish female designers such as Irene Gilbert and Neíli Mulcahy, and they affirmed each other’s existence on the world fashion stage, but she also was helped along the way by a network of exceptional women.
The women that wore her designs
The women who wore Sybil Connolly designs are just as integral to Sybil’s story and many are the reason that we have these beautiful examples of her designs in our care. The exquisite tailoring and fabrics made her designs the go-to style for so many women from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Jacqueline Kennedy wore a Sybil pleated linen skirt for her official White House portrait. In the collection, we also have a deep petrol blue evening gown which was designed for Maire MacNeill Sweeney, academic and author of ‘Festival of Lughnasa’. Many garments come from Gertrude Hunt including fine examples of crochet, poplin and tapestry on silk. But women from across Ireland, Europe and the US wore her designs and highlighting the importance of Sybil Connolly’s legacy tells part of their stories too. This beautiful white pleated lined two-piece wedding dress is a magical embodiment of a special day in an Irish woman’s life and the history it contains needs recognition and preservation.
Conserving her garments is of paramount importance to the Hunt Museum as they contribute to our collective history, and a wealth of other perspectives: research, education, fashion design, textiles, history, social studies. They also inspire the creative sector both commercial and non-commercial.
Sybil Connolly’s contribution to women, to Irish exports, to Irish textiles and design, to Irish social history is impressive and her story deserves to be told as well as her legacy maintained.
The conservation work that we hope to carry out using the funds raised through this crowdfunding campaign will ensure her couture can be exhibited and enjoyed in the future.
Curator Sian McInerney on the conservation of Sybil's Legacy
Walking into the Hunt Museum, visitors can enjoy original Sybil Connolly couture designs on display. Allowing visitors to see the fall, design and detail of Irish fabrics such as pleated linen and Carrickmacross lace are important in telling the story of Sybil’s use of Irish fabric, and her rise to fame on the world fashion stage. But placing Sybil’s iconic garments on display requires important assessments to be made in order to balance the desire to exhibit the collection against ensuring that the condition of the garments is suitable for display.
As a best practice in conservation, we have asked a textile conservator to assess the condition of some of Sybil’s greatest designs. Unfortunately, this resulted in some of the most iconic garments in the Hunt collection being identified as in need of conservation work. The proceeds of this fundraising campaign will fund conservation work on the following items in our collection.
A much-loved and admired dress in our collection is the strapless-evening gown in pleated linen called Heiress Dress. Heiress has four tiers of beautiful hand-pleated handkerchief white linen, between bands of Irish crochet and blue silk ribbon. Having been worn in its original life, the dress needs conservation treatment including a surface clean to remove ingrained soiling; to be humidified to remove any distortion of the fibres, and its frayed hem and the zip to be consolidated and re-secured. This work will be complemented by a conservation grade mount and custom-made supports so visitors will then be able to see this fashion ‘masterpiece’ on display.
The cream evening gown below features another of Sybil’s signature fabrics; Irish crochet, beautifully executed in the crochet appliquéd flowers throughout the bottom of the skirt. Known colloquially as the Mary Poppins dress, it was worn to the world premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. This delicate dress exudes the elegance of the early 60s that Sybil was so adept at designing, but any possibility of public exhibition requires extensive conservation This includes cleaning, repairs to structural damage and the reattachment of some of the exquisite flowers that adorn the skirt.
Just as iconic is the Red Wool Skirt, inspired by the Irish tradition of the 1950’s west of Ireland, described as ‘washer-woman’ style. The skirt is made in bright red flannel wool, quilted in a scalloped pattern. Sybil’s Red Wool Cape of the same style was featured on the cover of Life magazine on August 10th 1953 under the headline “Irish invade fashion world”. Sadly, there is visible moth damage to the skirt. It is hoped that monies raised by A Stitch in Time will fund infilling with conservation dyed fabric the visible areas of loss by the Conservator.
Two weeks and some very generous donations
Launched nearly two weeks ago, we thank you for your enthusiasm and donations. We would love to repeat the success of Fund a Cobble, which led to an incredible new public space and the beginnings of the Museum in a Garden at the back of the Hunt Museum and where the donations via Fund it led to a quintupling of donations from private sources.
Last year was the centenary of Sybil Connolly’s birth and the Hunt Museum told the story of her achievements and accomplishments as a designer, innovator, influencer and entrepreneur through the items we have in our Sybil Connolly Collection. Each month we looked at an aspect of her meteoric career from pretty humble beginnings to the designer of choice for Jackie Kennedy’s dress for the Kennedy Inauguration at the White House. The full story can be found on our website.
As we photographed and displayed more of our collection it became obvious that we couldn’t wait any longer to conduct essential repairs on some of the very iconic garments we hold. We asked a textile conservator to give us a price for the repairs and conservation to restore the garments for future display and audience enjoyment, this comes to €25,000 for 13 garments and we would like to raise half via this crowdfunder.
Here is one of the more dramatic repairs that need to be done:
Here at the Hunt Museum, we are holding a series of events as part of our A Stitch in Time – Sybil Crowdfunding Campaign, from ‘Stitch and Bitch’ classes to textile seminars for students, these events will give Sybil and her legacy the recognition it deserves. Her story is especially fascinating given that she was a female designer in the 1950s and used Irish fabrics for her couture designs.
Last week we held a Wikieditathon focusing on Sybil designs, sketches and added these to articles on Wikipedia from fashion, fabrics to design. Sybil was best known for her use of vernacular Irish fabrics, pleated linen, tweed, báinin wool, Carrickmacross and Limerick lace. With the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, the Wikieditathon focussed on adding Sybil references to articles about these fabrics, adding references and increasing our understanding of Sybil as an entrepreneur and designer.
The success of the event is illustrated by the results; 4 articles created, 35 edited, 138 edits, 7.5k words added, 599 references, 22.2k article views from our day’s work.
All photos and design sketches have been generously dedicated to the Public Domain under a CC0 licence by Sybil’s estate. By doing so, designs and sketches are now available for reuse in education, the creative industry and in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museum (GLAM) sector. The significance of the Sybil archive is especially important to highlight the achievements of an Irish fashion designer who forged a path for Irish everyday fabrics loved and worn by Irish women and women across the world.
Digital sharing of this incredible collection of Sybil Connolly is the perfect event as part of the crowdfunding campaign, and supporting through the purchase of these fantastic rewards ensures that the physical and digital items can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
To donate to The Stitch in Time Campaign click here.