Out of style, out of mind


Fashion students are taught many skills, but they are probably not prepared at college for the possibility of being forgotten. However, looking at the story of their predecessors this is almost certainly going to be the case. Fashion is maddening for many reasons - because of its extraordinary (and frequently unjustified) self-preoccupation, its habit of presenting every recycled idea as something startlingly novel, and its frequent confusion of sensationalism with creativity. But to a historian, fashion's most annoying trait is a complete lack of interest in the past - except, of course, when this provides an opportunity for cannibalism. This is an industry fixated with the future; in fashion, the only important moment is the one still to come. What happened last year is invariably consigned to the marked-down rails.

The regrettable outcome is a form of creativity with little knowledge of the past from which it has come and to which it is indebted. Examining the history of fashion in Ireland, it soon becomes apparent the common memory stretches back no further than a couple of decades. Anything that happened before 1980 or so has been lost in a fog of fashion amnesia. This is a terrible pity, because some of the most fascinating designers who worked here have been almost forgotten today. Who, for example, now remembers Irene Gilbert? Or Donald Davies? Or Peter Fitzsimons? Now all dead, the memory of their work has almost entirely died with them. Irene Gilbert certainly ought to be better known, not least because today's high-profile industry owes her a considerable debt. The first woman to run a successful fashion business in Ireland, even in her lifetime she failed to receive as much recognition as she deserved.

Lacking the skills as a self-publicist of her near-contemporary, Sybil Connolly, she tended to stay in the background; designer Pat Crowley, who worked with her for eight years during the 1960s, remembers Gilbert was too shy even to face many of her most loyal clients. What particularly distinguished her career (and, indeed, Sybil Connolly's too), was that it began at a time when Ireland's economy discouraged initiative and when women almost never owned their own companies. The 1950s are not, as a rule, recalled with much affection. During the course of the decade, more than 400,000 men and women left the country, and still there were record levels of unemployment among those remaining. This was a period when, uniquely in western Europe, the total volume of goods and services consumed in Ireland actually declined - which would hardly offer much incentive to a burgeoning fashion industry.

And yet, despite these dispiriting circumstances, Gilbert started designing and selling clothes under her own label in 1950. She had held a fashion show in May that year at Jammet's restaurant, at which most of the suits and dresses on display came from France or Britain, as was common at the time. But, at the last minute Gilbert - who until then had made only hats for the customers of her shop on South Frederick Street - decided to put in a dozen items of clothes she had made - "just for the devilment", she later explained. These were the most popular pieces in the show, and her career as a fashion designer had begun. Within a few years, her clothes were in such demand that she was able to buy a house in St Stephen's Green, from which she ran the business. Writing in The Irish Times after Irene Gilbert's death, the late Anne, Countess of Rosse, who was to become one of the designer's most devoted clients, said that until 1950 in Ireland "ladies of fashion had to resort to the salons of Paris and London to be really well dressed", because Dublin "could produce only dull tweedy suits or dowdy dresses for race meetings or home wear".

Irene Gilbert's emergence began to change that; as the collection of clothes she made for Anne Rosse and now kept at Birr Castle proves, an Irish "lady of fashion" could find whatever was needed without going abroad. The designer used wonderful indigenous fabrics, many of which were specially made for her. At Magee's in Donegal, the samples of dazzling-coloured tweeds woven exclusively for Gilbert are still preserved.

Her talent was entirely instinctive and she almost never drew a design; former model Grace O'Shaughnessy remembers having to stand still for hours while material was draped and pinned on her body. When the designer had finished, her fitter would mark out the lines of the garment clearly in cotton thread before taking the whole thing apart and cutting out a pattern. One of the most common compliments paid to Irene Gilbert's clothes was that, being so well finished, they could be worn inside out. When the designer closed her business in 1969, she left the country and soon began to be forgotten. This was what also eventually happened to Donald Davies who, during the 1960s and 1970s, ran a company famous not just in Ireland but throughout the world. Davies, a Welshman who moved here just before the second World War, lived with his family at Charleville, an early-19th-century house outside Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. From here he ran his global business, with manufacturing initially located in stables behind the house.

The garment which made his reputation was notable primarily for its extreme simplicity, matched only by great versatility. The Donald Davies shirtdress, in lightweight wool tweed, soon became regarded as a design classic and a staple in every woman's wardrobe. The only elements which altered fundamentally from one season to the next were the colour and pattern of the fabric, designed by Davies's wife Mary in a never-ending kaleidoscope of shades. By 1968, with four factories in the greater Dublin area, the company was exporting 85 per cent of everything it made, running to hundreds of thousands of garments annually. Brown Thomas's Cecily McMenamin, who worked with Donald Davies for much of that decade, remembers his shops throughout Britain and the constant demand for shirtdresses.

Designer Clodagh, who now runs an interior design business in New York, once took a party of American buyers to visit the Davieses and watched while they were enchanted by the splendours of Charleville. But in January 1978, the family sold their home and left Ireland; one of Donald and Mary Davies's sons, Anthony, who worked in the business, had been killed in a car crash and some of the spirit which had driven the whole enterprise died with him. They kept almost nothing to remind them of how successful they had been and nor did anyone else. Today, it is almost impossible to find even a photograph of a Donald Davies shirtdress, let alone an example of the garment itself - the Ulster Museum in Belfast is lucky to possess one. There are now probably even fewer surviving pieces of clothing designed by Peter Fitzsimons, one of the stars of Irish fashion in the 1970s.

A Dubliner whose family had worked in the men's tailoring trade for generations, he never had his own label but still managed to become widely known thanks to the quality of his work. For much of his career he was employed by Michael Jacobs who describes him as not just a brilliant designer but also "very astute; he knew the Irish market and what was coming on". Terry Keane was one of Peter Fitzsimons's earliest admirers and can still recall the first time she saw his clothes at a fashion show in Sachs Hotel where "if there was anything like an overnight success, it was Peter after that show". Another abiding fan was Miranda, Countess of Iveagh, often photographed wearing Peter Fitzsimons, such as a white suit he made for her when she launched a new ship, the Miranda Guinness, in December 1976. When chosen as one of the world's best-dressed women three years later, she gave particular praise to the designer, saying "Peter is half a season ahead of everyone".

His suits and coats were as impeccably cut and finished as those of Yves Saint Laurent from the same period, but they had the advantage of being considerably less expensive.

Peter Fitzsimons was only 41 when he died just 11 years ago, in March 1989. But already he belongs to fashion's very distant past, consigned there along with a multitude of other names - not only Irene Gilbert and Donald Davies, but also Nicholas O'Dwyer, Raymond Kenna, Aine Lawlor and Sheila Mullaly. Today's designers can help in two ways to ensure the same fate does not await them. They can keep good records of their own work (and make sure these go to a museum to be easily consulted in future) and they can try to be aware of their industry's history in the hope that, when they are become part of this, someone will want to remember them.

After a Fashion, a series looking at the history of fashion in Ireland since 1950, begins on RTE1 on Tuesday, April 11th at 8.30 p.m. The book of the series, After a Fashion by Robert O'Byrne is published next Tuesday (April 4th) by Town House, price £18.99 paperback, £25 hardback. Robert O'Byrne will give a free public lecture, "Irish Style: Does it exist, can it exist?" at the National Museum, Collins Barracks on Thursday, April 6th at 6.30 p.m.