Sybil Connolly, who designed the linen dress that Jacqueline Kennedy wore in her White House portrait and who elevated Irish style to high fashion, died following a heart attack last week at her home in Dublin. She was 77.
Miss Connolly, whose popularity spanned almost a half century, brought her collection to New York in 1953. She introduced gossamer hand-pleated handkerchief linen, which required nine yards of fabric to pleat into one yard; spidery Carrickmacross lace and a sophisticated palette of hand-woven Irish Donegal tweeds. She was an early exponent of soft and casual clothes when Parisian designers were featuring rigid construction.
Connolly was an active designer until her death. For many years, most of her designs were sold in the U.S. to Rockefellers, DuPonts and score of other clients with social names, many at private showings. She also received clients at her elegant 270-year-old mansion on Merrion Square.
One of Connolly’s most unusual assignments was designing modern habits for three orders of Catholic nuns: the Sisters of Mercy of the United States and the Bon Secour and Marie Repatrice orders of Ireland.
Connolly played an important role in the revival of Irish handicrafts, including crochet, handwoven woolens, basketwork and the development of fragrances. “A shop window for Ireland” was how she described her five-story headquarters.
She was often inspired by the clothes favored by rural Irish women. A hooded cloak worn in Kinsale was translated into an elegant velvet evening cape. An unbleached woolen yarn, knitted in different patterns and used in Aran Isles fishermen’s sweaters, became an unusual sports outfit. Black Irish shawls and scarlet flannel petticoats were also adapted for more urban tastes.
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In addition to her fashion collections, she designed fabrics and wallcoverings for Brunschwig & Fils and Schumacher, and crystal and china for Tiffany & Company. She licensed several designs for manufacture, including wallcoverings and coordinating fabrics for Gramercy.
She also wrote several books on Irish houses, gardens and crafts, and houses she decorated were featured in a number of magazines. Among the books she wrote were “In an Irish House” (1988) and she was co-author of “In an Irish Garden” (Weidenfeld & Nicholson and Harmony Books, 1986).
She was a recipient of the Fashion Oscars’ Supreme Award, the Irish Tourist Board’s Ambassador Award and a National College of Art & Design honorary associateship.
Connolly was born in Swansea, Wales, on Jan. 24, 1921, the daughter of an insurance man originally from Waterford, and a half-Welsh, half-English mother. She is survived by a sister, Judy Connolly, of Dublin.
Her Welsh grandfather, a country squire and scholar, taught her Greek philosophy and private tutors coached her in other subjects. After her father’s death, while she was still a teenager, she and her mother went to Ireland, where her only formal education was two years in in the Convent of Mercy in Waterford.
At 17, her family allowed her to go to London to study dress design as an apprentice at Bradleys, a well-known dressmaking establishment which made clothes for the Royal family.
She returned to Ireland in 1940 and joined the fashion house of Richard Alan, becoming a director at the age of 22, before establishing Sybil Connolly Limited, Ireland’s first couture house.
A former taoiseach, Jack Lynch, once described Connolly as “among Ireland’s national treasures.”