A Sybil Connolly Gown
A Girl’s Writing is Never Done - The Website of Shauna Gilligan - A Wonderfully Done Literary Resource
“Sybil’s Dress” - A Short Story by Shauna Gilligan - April 1, 2019, published in The Cabinet of Heed- A Literary Journal
I have been closely following the work of Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes from Nowhere, for seven years. I have posted upon nine of her Short Stories and her powerful debut novel, Happiness Comes from Nowhere. She has very kindly contributed four guests posts on Irish writers to The Reading Life and participated in two illuminating Q and A sessions. My attention and time is direct result of the great admiration I have for her talent and her deep literary culture. Her stories are universal, arising from depths of Irish culture.
I was very happy to find a new Gilligan story online a few days ago, “Sybil’s Dress”. After reading it twice, I felt I was missing something. In a minute or so on Google I learned who Sybil was. Sybil Connolly (1921 to 1998) was a highly regarded Irish fashion designer famous for using Irish textiles and Irish Seamstresses to create world class haute couture. In the fashion world she was sometimes called “The Irish” Christian Dior. Life Magazine did a Cover Story on her work, The Irish Invade The Fashion World, in 1971. It was a great source of pride to the Irish when Jackie Kennedy wore one of her designs in her official White House portrait.
Vogue, the world’s leading fashion magazine, had a short article on her in 2015.
I think you really need to know why Sybil Connolly was so important to the Irish so I will share with you their article.
“Sybil Connolly, a favorite of Jacqueline Kennedy, who Vogue once described as “the vitamin C of the Erin-go-Couture movement,” was the first to put Irish design on the map when she showed her designs on a summer’s eve in 1953 at Dunsany Castle.
In 1956, Connelly developed her signature look: horizontal, hand-pleated, taffeta-backed handkerchief linen. So fine were these pleats that it took nine yards of fabric to create just one of the pleated material. Connolly was a romantic designer with a mission to incorporate native materials, like Carrickmacross lace and Donegal tweeds, into a feminine silhouette. Kennedy also deemed them suitable for the White House, selecting one of Connolly’s linen outfits for her 1970 official portrait by Aaron Shikler. More lasting than Connelly’s designs, though, lovely as they are, is her legacy, one that has enabled the careers of such breakout Irish runway stars as Simone Rocha and J.W.Anderson.” From Vogue Magazine
(There are 216 images of her work on Pinterest — https://www.pinterest.ph/zedna/sybil-connolly/)
I read The story, Reading time under five minutes, three more times after my research. I saw just how much Gilligan is able to show us about relationship of the rich and famous fashion designer to the Irish seamstresses who made her gowns. Connolly could easily afford to have her designs produced by elite fashion houses in Paris or London but she struck with the Irish. We see in the story how much this meant to the women making her gowns. Connolly did not send an aid to the workers with her designs, she went there, she talked to the women who admired her so much. All the seamstresses wished Jackie Kennedy would wear a gown they made.
The story is narrated by one of the workers:
“Real freedom is discipline,” she said as she slipped another pin into the linen.
I stared at my hands as they pleated another line in the evening dress. She was always saying things like that to us. I don’t mean to imply that she talked much, or that she was the chatty sort – she was, after all, a serious woman – but there was a gaiety about her when she paid us a visit. Somehow she felt that these visits must always involve imparting nuggets of knowledge that she had gleaned on her travels.
It was said in the newspapers and whispered amongst us that she was the best travelled and most international Irishwoman in the world. There was a strong hope that the First Lady Jackie Kennedy would wear one of the dresses our hands had pleated – and perhaps even pose for a portrait!”
“Sybil’s Dress” is a marvelous story. It takes us into the relationship of a famous designer to her workers. I could not help but contrast this with the despicable way Coco Chanel treated her employees.
Below is a very good article from the Irish Women’s Museum web page giving details on the life and career of Ireland’s greatest fashion designer. I learned she designed uniforms for three divisions of nuns and ran a very successful shop in Dublin for forty years.
A wonderful full color video from 1957 spotlighting her designs
From the author’s web page
Shauna Gilligan is a novelist and short story writer from Dublin, Ireland. She has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, and the UK, and now lives in County Kildare with her family and a black and white cat called Lucky.
She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales, is a registered teacher with the Teaching Council of Ireland, an active member of the Arts Council of Ireland Writers-in-Prisons Panel and a Professional Mentor with Irish Writers’ Centre. Shauna facilitates creative writing workshops with people of all ages. She teaches students in universities, in the community, and in prison settings.
Shauna enjoys collaborating with visual artists and is particularly interested in exploring the crossover of art and literature in storytelling, the depiction of historical events in fiction, and creative processes.
Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere was a critical success and the Sunday Independent review declared it to be a “thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.”
I look forward to following her work for many years.
Probably the Irish and those more into fashion history than I would