The Times We Lived In

Sybil Connolly

Sybil Connolly. Photograph: Jack McManus, June 13th, 1953

Sybil Connolly. Photograph: Jack McManus, June 13th, 1953


Perched amid a plethora of pleats and stripes, her legs primly crossed in regulation ladylike 1950s fashion, this woman was one of the first Irish designers to make it on the international scene, making clothes for Jackie Onassis and the Rockefellers, designing crystal and pottery for Tiffany’s and appearing on the cover of Life magazine.

Sybil Connolly was born in Wales in 1921 to a Welsh mother and an Irish father. The family moved to Waterford, where young Sybil attended a convent school. At the age of 17 she went to London to study dressmaking, but returned to Ireland when the second World War began in 1939.

By the time Ireland held its first international dress show in 1953, Connolly was a star.

In our photograph she is dressed smartly but conservatively in pencil skirt and flowery blouse – the uniform of the independent working woman. She is looking somewhat critically at the dress to her right: perhaps it doesn’t quite match up to the drawing she holds in her hands, though to the casual eye its tiny waist and immaculate bodice are almost uncannily perfect.

But then, perfection is the name of the game here. The photo achieves an almost mathematical symmetry – in fact, the whole visual ensemble strikes the eye as a series of triangles.

The jubilant spreading glory of the dress on the dummy echoed in the soft fall of the beribboned confection spread beneath Connolly’s left hand - and again in the inky gleam of the dress on the far right of the picture, which appears black but might, of course, be any colour, even a strong red.

The word “hourglass” springs to mind. No wonder Connolly disapproved of trousers which, she declared, were “only for riding”. One can only imagine what she might say about tracksuits and trainers.
Arminta Wallace

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