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How a young woman from Thurles became Ireland's first 'fashion radical'

Too little remembered these days, Irene Gilbert was world renowned – counting Princess Grace among her clients.

THE 1950s IN Ireland are often remembered as a period of doom and gloom.

Unemployment was high and, throughout the decade, around half a million people left the country – mainly to seek employment elsewhere.

A new exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin aims to tell the story of a group of women who set out to defy that trend – focusing on the ‘fashion radicals’ who aimed to put Irish designers on the map for the first time.

Thurles woman Irene Gilbert, who is featured in the exhibition, was the country’s first designer to achieve international renown – creating outfits for, amongst others, Princess Grace of Monaco.

irene Irene Gilbert fitting an Aer Lingus uniform. Source: Little Museum of Dublin

As exhibition curator Robert O’Byrne explained, Gilbert’s importance to the history of Irish design is often overlooked – but she was a real pioneer.

“She probably isn’t well enough known because she retired at the end of the sixties – she left Ireland and went to England.

She was more shy too – she was less of a publicist than some of the other designers so she’s less high-profile. But she was really the first of the great couture designers in Ireland.

Born around 1910, she first ran a dress shop on Wicklow Street in Dublin before making the move to London to train with a court dressmaker – putting in 12 hours days to help create gowns and other outfits for society women.

After remaining in Britain throughout the war, she returned home to Ireland and opened a hat shop on Dublin’s North Frederick Street in the late 40s.

irene2 A selection of Gilbert's designs on display at the Little Museum of Dublin. Source: Little Museum of Dublin

Her design career began to take off after she staged her first fashion show in 1950 – even though she said she had decided to include a few dresses and suits “just for the divilment”.

She counted a variety of minor royals among her customers – and at the height of her success employed a staff of 30 people at her bustling premises on Stephen’s Green.

“She was really the first designer to achieve a really high international reputation,” O’Byrne explained.

Of course, there were a number of men who worked here before, but really in a smaller way - not necessarily very high profile and not necessarily with a huge following.

Gilbert was different in that she managed to become a very successful businesswoman as she built on her success as a couture designer, said O’Byrne.

Rather than going abroad to build her reputation, which would have happened in previous generations, clients instead made the journey to Dublin to be fitted.

irene3 Ireland’s Fashion Radicals is now running at the Stephen's Green museum. Source: Little Museum of Dublin

She worked closely with local Irish tweed manufacturers and lace makers in her work. O’Byrne said she had an extraordinary understanding of the nature of different fabrics.

This was New York Times fashion editor Virginia Pope’s assessment of her designs, in 1954:

Irene Gilbert proved herself a master of handling of tweet in suits, coats and ensembles. The fabrics, of beautiful quality and delectable tonalities, were all hand-woven. In the handling of dress fabrics, the Irish designer showed a skilled hand that recalled the technique of the great Vionnet in the use of bias cuts.

Gilbert retired at the end of the 60s, moving to Cheltenham in England where she died in 1985.

“She retired because couture was too expensive for most people – most people started to get ready-to-wear, prêt-à-porter, clothes instead,” said O’Byrne.

But she was a couture designer – so she rightly decided that that time had ended for her.

Ireland’s Fashion Radicals is now running at the Little Museum of Dublin. You’ll find the website here.

Read: All-female line-ups: RTÉ have made changes to the Late Debate and the News at One >

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