Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1953 – Life cover, by Sybil Connolly

Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy were among the wealthy and highly influential US clients of Ireland’s first truly international fashion designer

In 2012 the actor Gillian Anderson made headlines for wearing a caramel-coloured vintage dress to the Bafta awards. The dress, made up of yards of hand-pleated linen, was designed in 1956 by Sybil Connolly, the first Irish fashion designer to come to international attention.

Born in Swansea to Irish and Welsh parents, Connolly trained as a dressmaker in London. She moved to Dublin in 1940 and worked in a managerial role at Richard Alan, but she designed a collection of Donegal tweed dresses for the store in 1952. This collection launched Connolly’s design career. It was her business acumen, however, that propelled her on to the international stage.

Nineteen-fifties Ireland did not have a significant market for expensive women's clothing, but her friendship with Carmel Snow, the Dalkey-born editor of Harper's Bazaar, introduced Connolly to the elite of US society, who became her principal clients.

In 1953 Snow presented Connolly to American buyers and fashion journalists. Within months her designs were on the cover of Life magazine, which showed the model Ann Gunning in a full-length red Kinsale cape and white crochet evening dress, with the headline "Irish invade fashion world".


Within months Connolly was supplying US and Canadian department stores and had launched her own label. She also benefitted from the support of the newly established export board Córas Tráchtála Teo, which heavily promoted Irish fashion and textiles in North America.

The Life cover epitomised Connolly's business strategy: present a romanticised ideal that showcased indigenous crafts and reimagined vernacular Irish clothing as aristocratic living. Ensembles were often named after Irish landmarks, such as Lough Corrib, and models personified mythological figures, including Kathleen Ni Houlihan accompanied by an Irish wolfhound.

Photo shoots took place in palatial Georgian homes, at public landmarks and by stone cottages. These appeared in the Saturday Business Post, Vogue, Time and McCall's magazines. Norman Parkinson and Richard Avedon were among the photographers.

Essentially, Connolly repurposed well- established tourist images of Ireland that were highly conscious of the US market. These resonated with wealthy east-coast socialites and Hollywood actors: Connolly’s clients included Rockefellers, Du Ponts and Mellons in addition to Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Taylor. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was also an ardent supporter; she chose a pleated linen dress for her official White House portrait in 1970.

Similar to her contemporaries Irene Gilbert and Nelli Mulcahy, Connolly enthusiastically supported Irish textiles, including Carrickmacross Lace, Magee Tweed, Moygashel Linen, unbleached wool and red flannel. In the 1950s she employed 100 or so women to weave and crochet, many working from their own homes. These relatively low production costs contributed to the affordability of her clothes in the US.

Her signature fabric was the hand-pleated linen of Gillian Anderson’s dress. Connolly discovered the technique in Northern Ireland, where it had been used to create handkerchiefs for European aristocracy. Nine yards were needed to produce one yard of finished cloth; it could be tightly packed but re-emerge uncreased.

Referred to as the “house that linen built”, Connolly’s haute-couture label was launched from her Dublin home, at 71 Merrion Square, in 1957, the worst year for emigration and unemployment in the history of the State. By this time she had an annual turnover of about $500,000, three-quarters of which originated in the US.

Connolly once proclaimed that no woman can be really elegant until she’s over 40, but her career faltered from the 1960s as she rejected more casual and youthful trends. From the 1980s she focused on homeware design for companies such as Tiffany and Tipperary crystal, pre-empting the swathe of Irish fashion designers who followed suit in the late 20th century.

You can read more about Sybil Connolly in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography;