THERE is no doubt," wrote a correspondent of The Manchester Guardian in January 1955, "that the lead given by Sybil Connolly of Dublin in the translation of Irish fabrics from home spun to couture level is a beacon lighting a whole industry." The 1950s is usually not a decade which is considered with especial favour by Ireland's cultural historians, but for this country's fashion it was probably the most important period this century. After being isolated for many years, the new state began to open up to new ideas and simultaneously find itself the object of steady attention from overseas observers.
In 1954, for example, Women's Wear Daily could report of Irish fashion that "American interest in the Dublin market appears to be increasing." Buyers and fashion writers came here more regularly than they do today - a long feature on "world famous designers" in the Toronto Star, also from 1954, mentioned Dublin in the same sentence as Paris, Rome and London - while the leaders of Irish design showed their collections regularly in New York and Boston. "Tweeds In Peach Mark Irish Attire" was the New York Times headline on a report from one such show.
Three women designers led the way and set the image abroad for what came to constitute Irish style: Sybil Connolly, Irene Gilbert and Neilli Mulcahy. In her newly published book Fabric and Form: Irish Fashion Since 1950, Elizabeth McCrum notes the enormous importance of Sybil Connolly in giving Ireland an international fashion image. Connolly's particular genius was to take traditional materials and update them. It was to her and the other Irish designers' advantage that during the 1950s tweed was a fabric particularly in vogue. The kind of tight waisted jackets and knee length skirts they produced at the time had universal appeal fortunately, tweed in glorious rich colours was being manufactured in Donegal thereby enhancing the Irish reputation.
But Sybil Connolly went further by cleverly reinterpreting traditional Connemara clothing for an international market. She took brilliant red flannel from the west of Ireland, for example, and with it made her "Irish washerwoman outfit of 1952. Most famously, she used fine handkerchief linen for tightly pleated dresses which became her signature work. Later, other designers such as Mary O'Donnell were to follow Sybil Connolly's lead, looking at lace and crochet and finding new ways of styling them for contemporary clothes.
As a result, Irish style came to be associated primarily with natural materials, above all linen, tweed, lace and elaborately patterned hand knits. The last of these, commonly called Aran sweaters, despite having an image suggesting ancient origins are really an invention of this century - fashion's equivalent of the Irish coffee they underline the fact that what is perceived to be traditional style in this country is really not very old. In large measure, this is because where matters of dress were concerned little of the old survived into the present age. Only in remote corners of Connemara and west Cork did such items of clothing as red flannel petticoats and hooded cloaks continue to be worn.
BECAUSE these were the kind of styles featured by Irish designers who showed their clothes abroad, the image of this country as a place of strong tradition became so fixed that it remains powerful today.
In fashion terms, Ireland is still regarded as largely unchanged since the days of The Quiet Man, made here in 1952, the same year that Sybil Connolly first achieved widespread international attention. There are usually several fashion shoots scheduled in Ireland every year for publications around the world, all of which clearly receive the same brief. Last month, French Vogue carried a 10 page spread called Cachemire en Irlande: even though the clothes featured were not by Irish designers, the style of the pictures was typical of how this country is perceived. The stereotypical Irish fashion photograph will, as in the case of Vogue, be taken in Connemara, and show the model - clad in sweaters and tweed - before a backdrop of green fields and dry stone walls. Some livestock and an elderly farmer or two may also feature. This is the image of Irish style abroad: as though set in aspic, essentially rural and untouched by the changes of the past 50 years. The clothes must be equally `traditional,' in natural shades and with all sense of artifice eschewed.
While this style was fresh and invigorating when first produced in the 1950s, it can easily look stale and cliched now. And yet it retains its enormous popularity, as an inspection of the large number of shops throughout the country selling "traditional" Irish clothing demonstrates. The state of the Irish knitwear industry here reflects just how strong the demand for our traditional style remains - some 70 companies in this sector employ more than 1,600 people and have a combined total last year of £45 million. Most of these knitwear manufacturers specialise in the kind of heavy gauge sweaters that are associated with Ireland and sell in large quantities to tourists. Lighter weight sweaters represent only a tiny section of the overall business. Bainins may not always be to the taste of this country's fashion cognoscenti but from an economic perspective, Irish traditional style continues to serve us very well.
The market for Irish traditional sweaters and other items of clothing appears not to be interested in fashion as a transient experience. Buying an Aran sweater or a Donegal tweed suit represents sharing a tradition, even if this is only of relatively recent vintage. Ireland has been very good at marketing itself as an unspoilt country and its clothing shares that image. Irish style, accordingly, has come to be seen abroad as something outside the vagaries of fashion but this is, in fact, not the full picture. Style in Ireland has been no more immune from change than many other area of our culture.