Irene Law (née Gilbert)
by Robert O'Byrne
Gilbert, Irene (c.1910–1985), fashion designer, was born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Both in private conversation and public interview she was always secretive and little is therefore known of her parentage or early life, although on one occasion she did explain that while her father was Irish, her mother came from Yorkshire. She attended Alexandra College, Dublin, followed by a brief period at a Belgian finishing school before returning to Ireland to run a women's clothes shop in Dublin, called Femina.
From childhood onwards, Gilbert had shown a keen interest in fashion design but in post-independence Ireland there was nowhere for her to receive training in this field. She therefore moved to London, working at a court dressmaking establishment. This experience was of vital importance in her later career, since she often referred to the meticulous workmanship required from all members of staff. The clothes produced by the couture house she eventually opened in Dublin would also be distinguished by their flawless finish and attention to the finest detail. Gilbert once declared that her work was so thorough that it could be worn inside out.
While living in London, Gilbert married for the first time, but even the name of both this and her subsequent husband are no longer remembered, so reticent was she about divulging such information. It is believed that during the Second World War she remained in England, working for British intelligence. After the war she returned to Ireland and opened a shop on Dublin's South Frederick St., stocking hats created by herself and some clothes by British and French designers.
During this period, Irish fashion was dependent on direction from London and Paris, and while the country was replete with competent dressmakers, there were no designers of sufficient skill or stature to inspire the establishment of an indigenous industry. Gilbert was the first such designer to emerge, following a fashion show she held in Jammet's restaurant, Dublin, in May 1950. Here she presented a dozen coats and dresses manufactured to her own designs, and so successful did these prove with the Irish clientele that Gilbert's career as Ireland's first couturier was established.
Haute couture – in which each garment is made for a specific woman – was always Irene Gilbert's field of expertise, and she worked during a time when there was still a large enough number of customers prepared to pay for such work. Her list of loyal clients included many members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy such as the Countess Fitzwilliam, the marchionesses of Headfort and Sligo, and the Viscountess de Vesci. However, her greatest supporter among this group was Anne, Countess of Rosse, who ordered large numbers of garments from Gilbert each season and worked closely with the designer on their creation. Lady Rosse's collection of Irene Gilbert clothing remains at her former home, Birr Castle, Co. Offaly. Another stalwart fan was Lady Ursula Vernon, who provided financial backing in 1960 when Gilbert moved from South Frederick St. to larger premises at 117 St Stephen's Green. Here at the height of her success, she employed a staff of more than thirty women in her workrooms.
Not only did Irene Gilbert help to create the concept of an Irish fashion industry, she also gave considerable support to the country's fabric manufacturers. She was a keen advocate of Irish tweed, much of what she used in her clothing being specially produced for this purpose by the likes of Avoca Handweavers in Co. Wicklow and Magee & Co., Ltd, in Co. Donegal. But she was not averse to sourcing material from French and Italian mills, especially for her eveningwear.
Gilbert's particular skill as a designer lay in her handling of fabric, which she preferred to drape and pin on a model rather than follow any preconceived form. Her perfectionism meant she would often rework a design repeatedly in an effort to ensure it met with her satisfaction, and former staff would testify to the dauntingly high standards she demanded from them. Her technical abilities were also exceptionally strong and she revelled in opportunities to produce clothes that, despite their apparent simplicity, had actually cost considerable effort.
Less than twenty years after first opening her own couture business, Irene Gilbert was faced with the twin problems of escalating costs and diminishing demand. In February 1969 she therefore announced her retirement. She then left Ireland, moving first to Malta and subsequently to Cheltenham, where she died in August 1985. Her archives have not survived, but the National Museum of Ireland possesses some of her letters, drawings, and a small number of clothes.
Robert O'Byrne, 'Couture for a countess: Lady Rosse's wardrobe', Irish Arts Review, xii (1996), 156–63; Elizabeth McCrum, Fabric & form: Irish fashion since 1950 (1996), 18–20; Robert O'Byrne, After a fashion: a history of the Irish fashion industry (2000), 22–6
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.
27 Jan 2018
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.
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 [Malta]. 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 hour 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.
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."
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.
Irene Gilbert (fashion designer)
Irene ("Ireeni") Gilbert, Ireland's first couturier
(19 Jul 1908 – 7 Aug 1985, Cheltenham)
Margaret Elizabeth Irene Gilbert was born in Main Street, Thurles, County Tipperary to Jennie [or Jane] (née Knox) and William Charles [or Charles Edward] Gilbert, a commercial traveller in the printing and stationery trade.
She was living on the Mall in Waterford in the 1911 census. Her father was forty and her mother twenty-two, her parents had been married for three years, and she was their only child. Her parents had been married in St Pancras, London in Dec 1907.
Irene became an Irish fashion designer based in Dublin. Ireland's first couturier, she was a member of the "Big Three" Irish fashion designers, along with Sybil Connolly and Raymond Kenna/Kay Peterson. Designing for royalty and high society, she was famous for her work and friendship with Grace Kelly. She was the first woman to run a successful fashion business in Ireland, operating out of a shop on St Stephen's Green on the south side of the city.
Gilbert's career in the fashion industry began when she ran a dress shop on Wicklow Street in Dublin. She then went to London to train under a court dressmaker, before returning to open a hat shop on Dublin's North Frederick Street in the late 1940s.
Having moved to St Stephen's Green, Gilbert opened a shop there in 1947, and she began selling clothes under her own label from 1950, after her first show took place in Restaurant Jammet. She was known for her work with silk, tweed, linen and Carrickmacross lace. Future celebrated designer Pat Crowley worked for Gilbert for seven years from 1960, as a designer as well as a sales and marketing specialist; the quality of the work contributed to Dublin's reputation as a "must stop-over" for the international fashion media.
She designed one of the ten variations of the Aer Lingus uniform for cabin crew.
(Air Stewardess, 1966 – 1970 style)
Gilbert closed the business in 1969 and took up residence in Malta. She later moved to Cheltenham in England where she died in 1985. Gilbert's creations were prized by Anne, Countess of Rosse whose collection of Gilberts are now curated at Birr Castle. In Jan 2018, Gilbert's life and work was the subject of an exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin.
(Originally published in print Sep 2020.)
With new Irish designers emerging every year and numerous colleges across the country offering courses in fashion design, it is very easy to forget how far this country has come in terms of making a name for itself in the world of fashion.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Ireland was a very different place compared to the Ireland that we know today. Unemployment was high, poverty was rampant and Ireland's fight for independence plunged the country into a state of turmoil that lasted for years. Needless to say, making a name for ourselves as a fashion capital of the world was not a priority.
However, that did not stop Tipperary woman Irene Gilbert from chasing her dream of founding a new culture of high fashion in this within the country.
Born in Thurles in 1908, Gilbert's career in the fashion industry began when she secured a job running a dress shop on Wicklow Street in Dublin. After working there for some years, Gilbert made the move to England where she trained under a court dressmaker. It was here that Gilbert learned the tricks of the trade while working long hours to create outfits for women of high social rank.
Having moved back home in the Forties, in 1947 Gilbert went on to open up her own shop. The shop was a roaring success, despite the fact that money at the time was scarce and that very few people had the spare income to spend on clothing.
After three years of running her own shop, in 1950 Gilbert's career in design was kickstarted when she held a fashion show in the Jammet Hotel and Restaurant, a trendy French-themed restaurant located in Dublin at the time. The show was a huge success and from then on Gilbert began selling clothes under her own label. This was a major advancement for the Irish fashion industry, as up until this point, the typical Irish "lady of fashion" had to travel abroad to buy couture and designer pieces. As such, Gilbert subsequently became Ireland's first ever couturier and the first woman to successfully run a fashion business in Ireland.
What set Gilbert aside from other designers was her keen eye and perfectionist nature. She famously spent long hours liaising with her fabric suppliers and poring over her designs before releasing them to the public. It is said that she once went as far as to turn up on the doorstep of Avoca Hand weavers in county Wicklow clutching a bunch of dried hydrangeas, begging workers in the mill to help her replicate their colour in her latest tweed creation.
Undoubtedly, the peak of Gilbert's career came when she was approached by Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco – possibly the most famous style-icon of the time –and asked to design a piece. The pair subsequently developed a closely-knit friendship and Gilbert went on to design numerous pieces for the glamorous princess. In 2010, a Carrickmacross lace evening dress that Gilbert designed was featured in the Grace Kelly retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Aside from Grace Kelly, the majority of Gilbert's clients were Irish. Featuring among her list of clientele was Mrs Sean T. O'Kelly, the President's wife, and Anne, Countess of Rosse, from Birr, Co. Offaly. Gilbert also designed one of the variations of the Aer Lingus uniform which is considered to be a major achievement for any Irish designer.
Despite the glamour and glitz that one associates with a career in the fashion industry, Gilbert despised the limelight and blended into the background as much as she possibly could. It is likely that this is one of the main reasons as to why she failed to market her designs globally. Designer Pat Crowley, who worked with her for a period during the 1960s, claims that Gilbert was too shy to even meet with some of her most regular clients. This would be a major hindrance in such a social line of work.
In 1969, at the ripe old age of 61, Gilbert closed the doors of her business for the final time and said farewell to her sparkling career in design. The nature of the industry was changing too quickly for a homegrown, relatively small-scale designer like Gilbert as most people were now beginning to favour ready-to-wear, prêt-à-porter clothes over garments that were made to measure.
After her death in 1985, Gilbert left behind her an amazing legacy as both an excellent businesswomen and an exceptional designer. As the Thurles woman who paved the way for the future of Irish design during an extremely difficult period in Ireland's history, Irene Gilbert, we salute you.
She had twice been briefly married but the love of her life was Ronald Kaulback ... in her own words, "The most remarkable man of the 20th century."
What a fascinating woman she was – though I only knew her slightly, and quite rightly she didn't think much of me, bespectacled nerd that I was, but though she wasn't boringly beautiful she had tremendous allure and total je ne sais quoi.
It's been said above that she could be unaccountably shy even with clients of long standing, and was unforthcoming about her background, so perhaps we'd better get that sorted straight away – though there are degrees of uncertainty still.
|#||Individual||Spouse / Partner||Family|
|‑2||William Charles Gilbert
(1871 – 1927)
|Jane (Jennie) Knox
(1888, Yorkshire –
27 Sep 1949, Africa)
(m 8 Oct 1907, Kentish Town)
|Margaret Elizabeth Irene Gilbert|
(1908 Q4 Thurles, 3 434
19 Jul 1908, Thurles –
3 Aug 1985, Cheltenham )
(19 Jul 1908 –
3 Aug 1985)
|Edward L Tomkinson
(m 1935 Q2, Westminster, 1a 1282)
|Ronald (Ronnie) P Law
(m 1953 Q2, Dublin South, 2 559)
please click here and here for mutual corroboration
She kept the surname Law for fiscal purposes, as witness the Probate record, but except for that nothing is known about her second husband apart from his name.
But for a decade or more she adored my then future father in law, Ron Kaulback, and he her, as will be recounted.
But where, when and how did Sonia connect with Irene Gilbert's narrative? Some potted history would set the scene.
Sonia left The French School in Bray, Co Wicklow, in mid-summer 1957, at the age of 16, having successfully completed eight O-levels (and featured prominently in the school Lacrosse team).
She and her sister Susie were then taken by family friends Philip and Betty Ironside for a motor tour of Germany and Austria – a great opportunity for Sonia to practise her German (which she greatly preferred to French).
It was time for new directions.
Susie went as au pair with the Percival family, who were connected at board-level with the Pilkingtons, owners of the renowned glass-making company in St Helens.
Ironically, Sonia was first sent as an au pair with a Parisian family, but couldn't really connect with them (as neither can the rest of France, I hear say), became very home-sick, and returned to Ardnagashel. Once home, she attended the Bantry Technical College for a secretarial course, learning Greggs short-hand (which later had to be un-learnt in favour of Pitmans!) and typing.
She then went as au pair with George and Jean Reid in Newport Pagnell, to help look after their daughter Joanna. Their son Iain was about to leave school at Uppingham, and the Leavers' Ball was looming – but one of his good friends had nobody to go with – would Sonia like to accompany him for the evening's festivity? And so she did, wearing (as she recalls) a haute couture strapless ball-gown from that year's Irene Gilbert Spring/Summer collection. The theme of that year was birds, and Sonia's gown was very aptly christened Fledgling.
Eric Douglas-Dufresne died in mid-year, and so Ron, Audrey and family, plus the recently-married Richard and Elyse Hobbs, spent Christmas at Kier Mains with Elsa.
In the early part of the year Sonia and Susie, staying at a nearby students' hostel, completed a course at the Catherine Judson Secretarial College in Kensington – this comprised (Pitmans) short-hand (she attained 140 words/minute), typing (she attained 100 words/minute, on pre-electric manual typewriters), book-keeping and journalism.
And off they went into the world of paid employment – Sonia initially with a rather extraordinary individual by the name of John Wells, whose fortunes went down rather more often than up, though when they were up they were up, and interwove with our subsequent lives ever after.
At this distance in time, and relating to occasions which hadn't seemed especially noteworthy when they took place, it's virtually impossible to recall them in detail, but Sonia does remember being taken up to Dublin by Ron (possibly after she returned from Paris) and being introduced to Irene – possibly in connection with the ball-gown mentioned above. Or maybe she'd flown over from England to Dublin and rendezvoused with him beforehand. Either way he himself was already acquainted with Irene.
And at what point their purely social dealings metamorphosed into something much deeper it's idle to speculate. But in that process, Irene clearly began to regard Sonia as the daughter she'd never had. They would meet whenever she was in London, or Sonia was in Dublin, and Sonia's initially meagre wardrobe began to benefit regularly from each new Irene Gilbert collection.
In early autumn 1964, just as I had returned from Abu Dhabi, Sonia flew out to stay with Irene at the Paradise Bay Hotel in Malta, where Irene was based while looking for a suitable second home to buy. Irene continued to hope that Ron would abandon his problematic marriage and find refuge with her in a Mediterranean sans-souci.
Irene did find somewhere such, but, for whatever reason, Ron never committed to her. As the 1960's progressed, his finances deteriorated and perhaps he just couldn't afford a marital break-up. They did discreetly holiday together each autumn, when the hotel closed for the winter, but eventually (1967) his brother Bill (who had walked out pretty brutally on his own first wife) started raising a fuss about the liaison. Motes and beams. And I think Audrey issued an ultimatum, not unreasonably.
The fire that destroyed Ardnagashel in autumn 1968 was probably also the Questa o Quella moment for Ron, especially as the insurance money turned into fairy gold, thanks to an obliging nephew, and a disillusioned Irene decided to retire to Malta permanently. Sonia continued to keep in touch, and saw her whenever possible, but our budget (following our marriage in 1967) didn't often run to Maltese excursions.
Ron and Audrey finally went their separate ways in autumn 1976, but reconciliation with Irene was no longer conceivable. She was by all accounts a perfectionist in her professional capacity, and having been married twice to men who proved to be far short of perfection, she had held out as long as possible that third time would be the best imaginable.
In the early 1980's she relocated to England and bought an attractive cottage in Cheltenham. But she was bothered by her apparently declining finances. Having always promised that her Will would leave everything to Sonia (which was nice of her, but we would have much rather that she had lived to a contented old age) she reworded it almost entirely in favour of individuals to whom she had effectively mortgaged the house lock stock and barrel, shortly before she fell to her death down the stairs.
The Dress with No Name
A wedding dress in fact, entirely devoid of designer label – how could this be? And in what circumstances?
In the summer of 1967, following my final exams in London, my wife to be and I decided that it would be an ideal time to get married. So I duly proposed and Sonia (for it was she) agreed the deal, and her parents announced it officially. By that time I was rushing around trying to find a congenial postgraduate opportunity, and (wisely or unwisely, I've never been certain which) deciding to opt for the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
This meant I'd be out of town, as they say, for all the planning and preparations that were involved in readiness for the wedding, by now scheduled for mid-December. And as every bride to be is aware, the wedding dress is a much bigger decision than her choice of bridegroom.
Sonia's natural preference was for Irene Gilbert, and during that autumn she made several trips from London to Dublin for fitting sessions. To avoid hurting her mother's feelings, this was all accomplished very discreetly, and although Audrey must inevitably have had a shrewd idea as to the sourcing of the dress, she very charitably turned a blind eye.
But to make assurance double sure, the dress bore no label$ and its origins remained totally enigmatic. A policy of don't ask and don't tell was maintained throughout. I of course had absolutely no idea about all the background implications of the dress, and simply thought the bride looked smashing!
Click here to see the dress from various aspects.
$ It could be argued that in that era, when the truly patrician felt no need to flaunt their wealth and style, the hautest of haute couture bore no labels anyway, and that it is only the vulgarity and crassness of contemporary celebrity-worship that insists the 'designer-label' is obtrusively visible for all to see and covet for themselves.