It’s tempting to imagine a cliché of a nice Irish lass choosing to show her first collection in a church. But as the saying goes, “looks can be deceiving.” Irish designer Roísín Pierce chose the American Church in Paris for her first formal presentation anywhere. Sure, the stained-glass cathedral has a pretty side, but Pierce’s reasons for showing her signature all-white ethereal confections, which combine layers of handicrafts executed in light-as-air ensembles, is steeped in Ireland’s particular history of female oppression.
Post-show backstage, Pierce described what she looked to when designing the collection, which was a year in the making.
“I explored how women were further controlled when Ireland became a free state [in 1922]. A justice minister was established, and higher-ups in the Catholic church developed a committee of ‘evil literature,’ which led to banning books they didn’t want to represent Irish culture. There were occurrences where O’Brien’s works were burned at the pulpit,” according to Pierce, noting James Joyce’s Ulysses was also banned.
The collection entitled ‘Beware, Beware’ was a physical embodiment of the emotions and effect Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus poem had on the designer.
“It’s a revenge poem that references women’s lack of freedom; she starts as fragile and controlled but becomes a fierce woman by the end,” she explained, adding, “It’s relevant today when you look at Afghanistan, and the women can no longer work, but instead they are making jewelry.”
Crafts is at the heart of Pierce’s distinctive multi-faceted designs. She and her mother have started a two-women crusade to preserve Irish crochet lace, conceived during the Great Famine in the mid-1800s.
“They changed the hooks, and they made it resemble Italian lace. It became one of the biggest exports of the day and helped families improve their situation; for some, it allowed them money for passage to the United States,” she said, adding, “It’s time-consuming and wasn’t being practiced, especially by young practitioners. My mother and I held intimate classes for a year to help continue the tradition.”
The result, however, is that the Victorian era is applied in a modern way. For instance, Pierce constructed a lace version of chainmail that became a vest layered over a dress with complex smocking. Comparisons in aesthetics could be made to the work of Cecile Bahnsen, whose collection, also shown Wednesday in Paris, employs similar handiwork and fabrics. Although the latter explores a range of colors, knits and tailored aspects.
For instance, her all-white palette of chiffon, organza, and silks is rooted in the subjugated archetypical female roles such as bride and communicant in the church or at home as a laundress. It also serves as a design tool.
“The muted palette, the fabrications, and embroideries become the color and play with the 3D aspect of the garments,” she noted.
The church recalled the theater in which Plath’s Lady Lazarus displays her metamorphosis, sometimes to a jeering audience. “The crowd is almost enjoying her pain,” she said, adding,
“Crafts have always been acceptable for women’s occupations, so the brand is telling it in this context but also references a feminine background which isn’t acceptable.”
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