Pioneer in the demanding skills of fashion design

 

Pauline Clotworthy, who died in Dublin recently aged 92, was the founder of the Grafton Academy of Dress Designing. She was an Irishwoman of style and substance who carried within her name the complex legacy of 18th- and 19th-century European migration into Ireland.

In the 1790s the trader Daniel Köhler, formerly of Saxony, fled Paris and arrived in Ireland in the wake of the French Revolution. He married Elizabeth Goodwin, daughter of a Wexford Quaker household. In time, a daughter of this house joined in marriage with the house of John Thompson, who had landed in Ireland with Cromwell in 1649, settled in Wexford and had become a Quaker.

Through this union, Köhler became kin to the French Huguenot house of Pillar which, "consequent on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes" in 1685, abandoned France, moving in 1741 to Tyrone, and later also joining the Society of Friends.

Pauline Clotwothy's mother, Ethel Marian Thompson, marked by the humours of changing times, rode her bike from Enniscorthy to Wexford station and embarked upon a journey to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. Although marriage in 1904 to Robert Nesbitt Köhler curtailed her worldly ambition, the legacy of a Quaker education at Mountmellick persuaded her to combine accomplishment with industry, as Köhler domestic life became measured by the rhythms of the Singer sewing machine.

In 1912 Pauline Köhler was born. She was raised at Lismorna, on the Stillorgan Road, Dublin, a house by this time echoing the industry of women and the subdued swish of cambric, poplin and silk.

As war threatened Europe, the German family name, Köhler, was transformed, by deed poll, into the Irish name, Keller. Porcelain-faced dolls - dispatched from Germany to this great-grand-daughter - retained familial links. Their new owner stripped her charges of their Teutonic dress and used fabric ends in celebration of her own infant style.

That a certain "style" was to be a feature of Pauline Keller's life was evident in her later short stories. Summers were spent in Wexford, where her grandfather owned an engineering business. "Here, we had to get up early to travel in an old Model T Ford to attend Quaker meeting in Wexford town. We were all wearing our Sunday-best clothes. This I enjoyed as I always took great interest in what people considered looked good on them and whether they failed or succeeded in this respect."

With the coming of age, such modest but vaguely un-Quaker-like activity, sought creative expression, and the Metropolitan School of Art added Pauline Keller, in the wake of her mother, to its rolls. A gifted painter of water colours, in still-life classes she was cautioned by her teacher, Seán Keating, not to "make the model into a fashion drawing". This, however, was most precisely her intent.

Cloche-hatted, in the early 1930s Pauline Keller caught the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead, carrying letters of introduction to the Brown School of Fashion, Bond Street. In London, she learned how to represent, in water colours, fabric and texture, producing images of long, languorous figures in the vogue of the day. Three seasons away - with skills honed and sporting a decidedly London air - Miss Keller came home with the stirrings of an ambition to cut a stylish dash in Dublin.

She sought gainful employment with Arnotts Manufacturing, but her accomplishments failed to extend to the technical facility which would ensure that fashion plates could be transformed into blueprints for production. Returning to London, she enrolled in the British Institute of Dress Designing and was introduced to the art of pattern-making. In so doing, she moved beyond accomplishment and towards the restricted trade, and skills, of a tailor.

She returned to Dublin, detailed correspondence with her solicitor father having by this time secured his support for the pursuit of her ambition to ensure that such training would henceforth be available at home rather than abroad.

Ireland, 1937, aged 25 years and quietly indifferent to any constitutional persuasion to take her place by home and hearth, Miss Keller persuaded her father to invest in the leasing of rooms overlooking St Stephen's Green. Newly courted by Capt Neil Clotworthy, electrical engineer, she drafted the prospectus for the Grafton Academy of Dress Designing and refused to retreat as Europe prepared for war.

An advertisement in The Irish Times heralded the arrival of her pupils - from nuns heading to the missions to working women seeking a trade. By 1939 Barbara Dickson, fashion editor at The Irish Times, waxed eloquent in a salute to the official launch, with fashion show, of Miss Pauline Keller's "Grafton Academy".

In happy collaboration with her new husband, Mrs Clotworthy adapted to the shortages of the Emergency by teaching her pupils to transform old coats into new suits and to equip themselves with skills in expectation, post-war, of the New Look.

As family life expanded, uniformed nannies and domestic servants were deemed essential to her life as wife and mother and, in taking the bus each day from the Curragh to Stephen's Green, as precursor of the modern working woman.

The Grafton Academy established fashion as a form demanding engineering and structure as basic to finish, and finesse. A roll of honour lists designers Richard Lewis, Ib Jorgenson, Louise Kennedy, Paul Costelloe, Glenys Robbins, Quinn & Donnelly, and others, as graduates. As Richard Lewis suggests, however, it was Pauline Clotworthy who "was the pioneer", and the graduates of the Grafton Academy serve as testament to her heritage and to her skills, and serve now as the hallmark of Irish fashion design.

She was predeceased by her husband, Neil Clotworthy, and by their son, Robert. She is survived by her daughters, Suzanne and Jennifer, and by her grandchildren, Victoria, Janice, Philip, Christian, Cameron, Rebecca and Deborah.

Pauline Clotworthy: born May 17th, 1912; died December 22nd, 2004