Obituary: Sybil Connolly

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The Independent Online
SYBIL CONNOLLY was the most successful dress designer Ireland has known. She saw the point of simple native clothes, such as the red flannel petticoat and crocheted blouses, and made them into haute couture with an Irish flavour.

Elegant and wearable, they proved a satisfactory investment, neither dating nor changing from year to year. Connolly always went for beauty and style as opposed to "mere" fashion.

When the hemline went above the knee in the Sixties, Nancy Mitford remarked that people of her age had to choose between looking dowdy or ridiculous "and of course I shall plump for the latter". But "the great Irish couturiere Cyril Connolly", as Nancy called Sybil, was wisely slow to respond to the dictates of fashion.

One of her best creations was pleated linen, which had the look of the underneath of a mushroom. It took nine yards of fine pleating to make one yard of fabric, so dresses made from it were heavy - but so simple and so lovely. Jacqueline Kennedy is wearing one in the official portrait of her in the White House.

Sybil Connolly was born in Swansea to a Welsh mother and an Irish father; they moved to Waterford where she was educated at a convent school run by the Sisters of Mercy. After an apprenticeship in London at Bradleys the dressmakers, the war came and, at the age of 17, she moved to Dublin.

There she joined the firm of Richard Alan, named after the its owner Jack Clarke's two small sons. When she was only 22 he made her a director. She soon set up her own establishment and held her first major show in 1953 at Dunsany Castle, Co Meath, thanks to Lady Dunsany's admiration for her and her creations. It was a dramatic success and she never looked back.

Connolly was a generous friend to creative people all over Ireland. In her third and last book Irish Hands (1994), she describes her arduous travels in search of the best Irish craftsmen, and breaks into lyrical prose.

She had a brilliant flair for publicity. When her exhibition on the 18th- century Mrs Delany's intricate paper cut-outs was held at the Morgan Library in New York there were articles in all the glossies. Mary Delany sheets designed by Connolly dressed shop windows, and soon it seemed as if the whole of New York was talking about Delany, and of course Sybil Connolly.

When Jacqueline Kennedy visited Ireland in July 1967 Connolly was one of her few friends there, so took her under her wing. I had recently rescued Castletown, a great empty Palladian house near Dublin, from dereliction, and it was the first "stately home" to be opened to the public in the province of Leinster. Nobody came.

Connolly realised how much a visit by Mrs Kennedy would help the uphill task, and the Irish Georgian Society, and brought her to my house for lunch. But when we went to Castletown Connolly would not come. She felt it was my project and did not want to steal my thunder. This was typical of her kindness and self- effacing thoughtfulness. She was a wonderful hostess, a great perfectionist, and full of fun besides.

Sybil Veronica Connolly, dress designer: born Swansea 24 January 1921; died Dublin 6 May 1998.

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