I’ve been thinking about pleats for a little while now.
The heat-set pleats that have been a familiar feature of Issey Miyake’s “Pleats Please” brand . . .
(Issy Miyake, “Pleats, Please” in Dazed & Confused June 2012, image via Style Bubble)
. . . now seem, in attenuated form, to be everywhere on the high street.
(pleats at Maxmara, Jaeger, Cos, Paul & Joe, Hobbs / NW3)
I find myself ambivalent about contemporary pleats, largely because all of these examples (including Issey Miyake’s) are heat-set on 100% polyester fabrics. Frankly, the mere words “polyester heat-set pleats” are enough to make me feel a wee bit sweaty, but then you know I am all about the natural fibres . . .
The first name that springs to mind in association with modern methods of pleat-setting is probably that of Mariano Fortuny.
In 1907, Fortuny developed an innovative (and closely-guarded) pleating process for fine silks. He showcased this process, and the beautiful form-fitting fabric it created, on his famous “Delphos” dresses.
(Film star Lillian Gish in a Fortuny “Delphos”)
Worn uncorseted, and echoing the lines of the ancient chiton, Fortuny’s gowns had a forward-thinking, body-freeing simplicity. But the craft processes used to create them – pleating, cutting, cording, weighting with tiny glass beads – were of course incredibly elaborate.
In a way, however simple the lines of a garment, heavily pleated textiles immediately carry the suggestion of excess because of the sheer quantities of fabric they require. Thirty years after Fortuny’s silk gowns, another designer took a fabric with much more homespun connotations, and, through innovative pleat-setting, turned it into the height of fashionable luxury.
In the early 1950s, the combined linen industry of the North and Republic of Ireland employed more than fifty thousand people. Yet, like other traditional textile manufactures, the industry was threatened by the rise of man-made fibres. Linen, of course, has a propensity to crease and stay creased, which rather limited its range of uses as a modern dressmaking fabric. But together, Belfast handkerchief manufacturer, Spence-Bryson and Dublin designer, Sybil Connolly were attempting to turn what many regarded as the negative attributes of traditional Irish linens to their advantage. Connolly recalled the process thus:
“A challenge invariably makes one creative; after pondering the question for some time and in conjunction with the workroom staff, it was decided to experiment to see if we could develop a process that would permanently crush or pleat the linen and so make a feature of the problem rather than an insurmountable setback. It took eight months, during which time we put many theories to the test, before we came up with the correct solution. The process we decided on still remains our secret.”
Here is the beautiful fabric Connolly developed with Spence-Bryson.
Sybil Connolly Day Dress. Victoria and Albert Museum T.174-1973. Gift of Mrs V. Laski
Through Connolly’s pleat-setting process, nine yards of fine handkerchief linen were transformed into a single yard of dress fabric. Like Fortuny, Connolly used cords and smocking for structure, but her pleats were set in the garment horizontally rather than vertically, lending her full, floor-length skirts an airy, textured quality remiscent of the underside of a mushroom. In these dresses, as in many other of her designs, Connolly’s explicit aim was to promote and support ‘traditional’ Irish textiles. Yet her dresses perhaps proved so successful because they were also regarded as uniquely meeting the demands of the modern 1950s woman. “Crumple it into a suitcase,” enthused Vogue of one of Connolly’s dresses in 1957, “and it will emerge, uncrushed, uncrushable, to sweep grandly through a season of gaiety.”
(Sybil Connolly with Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin and Patti Curran wearing one of Connolly’s signature Irish linen dresses in Life Magazine, May 20th, 1957)
Like other mid-century designers and entrepreneurs, Connolly had a clear sense of the value of the idea of Irishness. She frequently launched her work across the Atlantic, and her designs were perhaps most popular in the United States and Canada. When Jackie Kennedy chose to wear one of Connolly’s gowns for her official White House portrait, there was a clear statement being made about national presidential connections.
(“Irish invade Fashion World” Look Magazine, August 10th, 1953)
When promoting her work, Connolly consistently lauded Irish skills and craftsmanship, and often developed styles in direct reference to those ‘traditionally’ worn in rural Ireland. For example, the striking cloak that appeared on the cover of Life in 1953 was meant to suggest red flannel petticoats.
But as the 1960s rolled on, the diasporic romance that Connolly’s work spoke to began to seem rather anti-modern.
Sybil Connolly didn’t move with the times. She professed a profound dislike for the mini skirt, and instead turned her hand to ceramics, producing some beautiful work for Tiffany, inspired by Mary Delany’s eighteenth-century floral paper cuttings.
Until her death in 1998, Sybil Connolly continued celebrating and promoting Irish craft and design, producing several publications on the subject. I have a copy of her last book Irish Hands, which is not only really interesting and informative, but also a damn good read.
At this year’s BAFTAs, Gillian Anderson’s attire spoke to current trends . . . in a heavily pleated linen dress designed in 1957 by Sybil Connolly.
Perhaps the time is now ripe for a revival of pleated Irish handkerchief linen? I suppose one can dream. . . and continue to feel ambivalent about heat-set pleated 100% polyester.
Sybill Connolly, Irish Hands, The Tradition of Beautiful Crafts (Hearst Books, 1994)
Alexandra Palmer, Couture & Commerce: the Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s (UBC press, 2001)
Claire Wilcox, Modern Fashion in Detail (V&A reissued edition, 1997)
(You can see examples of Connolly’s pleated linen dresses at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Dublin (I had the pleasure of seeing these gorgeous garments last year); at the Hunt Museum in Limerick; at the V&A and the FIDM in Los Angeles)