POLLY DEVLIN’s remembrance of people and times past is triggered by her collection of treasured antiques and the backstories of their acquisition …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the third episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.
The last time we looked at arbitrary objects in my collection I was crooning over two fabulous textiles: one on my bed, that fragile silk quilted counterpane embroidered with stumpwork in silver and gold thread, from Aileen Plunkett’s home, the rather doomed Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin. The other I keep in an ancient Irish cupboard, which was painted using the old, almost vanished combing technique to give the faux appearance of fine grained wood. Whoever did it failed badly. I found it in an old shed in a house that had seen better days on the Armagh-Keady road and the old man who sold it to me couldn’t believe his luck. The most terrible thing happened near there during The Troubles and I might go into that another day. Not now – life is too rough already. I keep a couple of old Irish quilts in there and four whitish papery rolls like long wasps’ nests which I bought in the sale of the contents of Sybil Connolly’s lovely house in Merrion Square in 1998. She was a most famous designer in the 1950s, not just in Ireland where she was hailed as a national treasure, but internationally renowned, with huge success in the US and Australia. She is almost forgotten now. She was old fashioned, she was conservative, she was didactic – she once said “No woman can be really elegant till she is over forty” and she was left behind in the rush of the mini-skirted sixties. But in her reign, she hit the fashion button right on its little crown – Jacqueline Kennedy for example wore one of her evening dresses for her official White House portrait and Hubert de Givenchy admired her and was a close friend.
I wouldn’t have missed that sale for the world. I was always deep into houses – my flight mode – and decoration (though I hate the way that word is used as though it is an added frippery instead of an intrinsic part of an agreeable life). So when I read that the Sybil Connolly Collection was to be auctioned at the Adams salerooms in Dublin I was over there in a flash. Well, alright, a long car and ferry journey. The sales catalogue was unequivocal: “Unfold one of these bales and the essence of the designer’s taste and f lair is apparent … To purchase one of these is to come into the ownership of an important part of Ireland’s fashion history.” “Right,” I thought “I’ll have a bit of that.” So I have. Yet any modern narrative history of Ireland ignores Connolly as though she had never existed, this brilliant ambassador for Ireland and its textile wares. Herstory. Just a little pre-emptive circular note here – only a short time later I sat in that same saleroom while the contents of my Dublin house collection was auctioned under my name. Blimey. What I bought were four rolls of her legendary crystal-pleated handkerchief linen – it took nine yards of material to make each yard of finished cloth. The fabric came in rich colours – mine is imperial-purple and I unpack it carefully because each precious pleat is encased in a protective cocoon of tissue paper to keep the edges crisp and it’s quite tricky to pinch the pleats back into its little furrow. I’ve been told it is uncrushable once it is made up into a skirt or dress and I keep meaning to have at least one roll of it made into an evening skirt but I don’t lead that kind of life. In any case, I am older than the fabric itself. Perhaps I will have it fashioned into an elaborate gown which I will never take off and we can age together me and it, like mad Miss Havisham, until we spontaneously combust.
She had first seen this fabulous lightweight linen in a factory in Randalstown in Ulster where it had been made for handkerchiefs for grandees in Europe and Russia. (Well, that’s the story). That market had fallen away after the two world wars, and there was a vast surplus which she seized up. The first piece she made from this linen – an evening gown called First Love – used 300 of white handkerchiefs in 5,000 pleats and was sensational. Not since Mario Fortuny’s famous Venetian silk slinky shifts had such extravagance been compressed into such a small space. That dress became an icon, a famous example of the possibility of native Irish luxury, hitherto a fairly unknown quality in our own dear national family life.
Aileen Plunkett was a client as any woman of style and money in Ireland was in those days and in 1954 was photographed for Vogue in a Sybil Connolly ballgown in the grounds of Luttrellstown. She was already known in the small Irish fashion circle, having worked behind the tailoring and couture scenes, first in London and then in Dublin with the French designer Gaston Malet, from the house of Balmain who had been hired by Richard Alan, then the leading fashion house in Dublin. She said later that she had been upset that Malet had never ever used any Irish fabric in his designs and she certainly made it up for it when he suddenly left – it sounds like he flounced off – and she was put in charge. It was another Anglo-Irish woman, Sheila Dunsany who initially brought her designs to the attention of the outside fashion world. Lady Dunsany came to the Richard Alan showroom for an LBD, saw the one that Manager Connolly was wearing, wanted it and no other and went on to order many different dresses and evening clothes and wore them in New York both to acclaim and consequence since she knew the legendary Carmel Snow, Dublin-born editor of Harper’s Bazaar in New York. She was hugely influential in fashion and so, in 1953, between the jigs and the reels, a load of American fashion editors and buyers trooped off to Ireland to Dunsany Castle for a dress show designed by Sybil Connolly. Buoyed by success, she officially launched her label in 1957 and zoom, she was off into the stratosphere.
The loss of a loved one is something many of us face into every year, and it will happen to every one of us at some stage.
I don’t know whether to take pinches of salt all round the Sybil legend because she was not above creating an Irish fantasy of the romantic peasantry in their red flannel skirts and ye draped shawls to underpin her folkloric yet sophisticated take on haute couture. Talk about flannel! She certainly used the concept to great profit, not least since she deployed the actual peasantry – over 100 women worked for her, half of them in their own homes making tweeds and lace and her prices were thus (thus!) much cheaper than were most designer clothes. To her huge credit she used every Irish fabric she could lay hands on. She said in an interview “I think I’d be a flop anywhere else. I just couldn’t design unless I lived here”. So bales of the red flannel of Connemara were fashioned into quilted skirts, white cambric for blouses, tweed from Donegal in an especially light weave, sometimes even striped linen tea towelling. She bought quantities of Báinín wool, and Limerick and Carrickmaccross lace and as much crochet work as she could commission. Even the 18th-century plasterwork details on the ceiling cornices in her house were used as embroidery motifs and legend had it that her woven straw caps were inspired by the thatch on Irish cottages. Unfazed by accusations of stage Irishry she said that “in this terribly competitive business … unless Ireland can produce something distinctive, she will get nowhere”.
In her time she was everywhere. When I was twelve I pinned up in my bedroom one of the most ravishing fashion photographs ever from the pages of Vogue. I still think it is. Two stunning sisters stand on each side of a magnificent marble-topped pier table (not that I knew what a pier table was but I knew quality when I saw it even then), with a white poodley-looking dog snoozing underneath. They were wearing strapless ball gowns, fanning out in white crisp waves, with a wonderful silk slash of a sash tied around one tiny waist – they were both tall and both had these TINY waists. What? How?
They can’t be have been much older than me – they may well have been debutantes that year – but how to convey how far away the world they inhabited was from mine. The moon would be in the halfpenny place.
The sisters were Lady Melissa and Lady Caroline, the daughters of Lord Dunraven, photographed by Norman Parkinson. In another little circle of time and circumstance he photographed me in a ballgown ten years later but it wasn’t by Sybil Connolly and I doubt if any twelve-year-old pinned it up. Still I was on that moon. Years later I read that Lady Melissa, now Lady Brooke, confessed: “Unfortunately I don’t have the dress any more. I gave my boyfriends all the handkerchiefs.” A A Argh. I roll the fabric up and put in back in the old press. Beside it is an old Louis Vuitton trunk. Wait till you hear the story of that. Next month – if we’re all still here.
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