100 years of Irish fashion in 10 key pieces
With an eye on both tradition and modernity, Emer O'Reilly-Hyland chooses her top fashion items from the past century, one for each decade
Since then, many fashion brands and designers have used Aran stitching for inspiration – Peter O’Brien created an Aran-inspired evening dress studded with rhinestones for Rochas in 1993 (it’s now in the Ulster Museum); even Jean Paul Gaultier dabbled in Aran in 1985, creating a (it has to be said, questionable!) man’s suit with tight trousers and hat.
In any prevailing image of the traditional Irish mammy, she’s wearing a headscarf. In rayon, chiffon or silk, the headscarf is firmly knotted under her chin. These were the war years when, across the water, the same scarves were knotted atop Land Girls’ heads, while here women battled daily with rationing. Accessible fashion hadn’t been invented yet, so the headscarf was one of the few ways women could express their joie de vivre.
As a fashion statement, the mammy-headscarf, along with the mantilla, disappeared round about 1970 and is one of the few pieces never to have made a comeback.
Yes, scarves are still covetable – you just have to look at the success of Alexander McQueen’s skull-print squares now celebrating their 10th anniversary, or walk into any Hermés store, to know that they are highly desirable, but they are now worn around the neck or fixed to a bag. There’s something about that tight knot under the chin that tightens facial features, suggesting an old narrow-mindedness, totally unjustified, but most unflattering– long may it stay in retirement.
The tweed suit
While Chanel created her boxy tweed jacket edged with grosgrain – muttering profundities like, “fashion passes, style remains” – Ireland had its own tweedy champions.
Our designers’ insights may have been somewhat more, well, tweedy, like Sybil Connolly’s famous line that women should show their curves not their joints, but they were an emerging force in the international fashion world of the 1950s, and at its core was the tweed suit.
This was the era before disposable clothing, when the good suit was a wardrobe essential, made to last.
We had the best tweed manufacturers in the world, such as Donegal-based Magee and McNutt’s. It was when, in the 1950s, these companies started to work with designers such as Irene Gilbert, Neillí Mulcahy and Ib Jorgensen, creating lighter blends, adding bright silk linings, and fur and leather trims, that the tweed suit, previously worn only to mass on Sundays or “to town”, took on a new glamour.
The glitterati, first ladies and socialites alike, channelled the new elegance sans Chanel. And the literati – Hon Garech Brown, JP Dunleavy et al – brought an aspirational quality to the country squire look. Decades later, the tweed suit still has a celebrity following.
While the mini skirt in Britain was personified by Twiggy, all stick legs, gamine haircut and false eyelashes, Ireland had a very different mini-embodiment. A young civil rights campaigner called Bernadette Devlin was busy wielding a loudhailer and a banner. This was the 1960s, when political action was the bastion of middle-aged men in heavy wool suits and overcoats.
Devlin was a powerful voice, perhaps because she was an incongruous figure, for two reasons: her youth and her mini skirts. She was just 21 in 1969 when the Battle of the Bogside took place. This was a key moment in the struggle and, though Devlin was subsequently jailed for four months for inciting a riot, she also went on to become the youngest British MP that same year.
But if this Derry girl was proclaiming into a microphone for all kinds of justice, there was another, singing into a different microphone, for all kinds of everything. As one decade finished and another began, 16-year-old Dana sat atop a high stool and sang for Ireland at Eurovision 1970. She too wore a mini, this time an ivory dress with Celtic designs down the front. Her voice was sweeter than Devlin’s, but no less powerful in gaining world attention.
The cape or cloak may have its roots in our historical past, but it was President Hillery and his wife Dr Maeve Hillery who championed it in more modern times. The president opted for a caped coat or shoulder-cape (made by Louis Copeland). Some say it was to give him character: to enhance his lack of charisma, but the effect was more Sherlock Holmes and, given that he often smoked a pipe, well, it was all a bit elementary my dear.