Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective – Review

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Eleanor Hughes reviews Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective which is at the National Museum of Ireland until May 2016.

Danish-born Ib Jorgensen is Ireland’s very own equivalent of legendary couturiers like Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. For those of you whose parents or grandparents grew up in Ireland, Jorgensen’s clothing was the epitome of luxury apparel from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. In his youth, Jorgensen contemplated a career in architecture, but ultimately decided to study dressmaking at the Grafton Academy and never looked back. After graduation, at just twenty-two years old, he established his own couture salon. From this point on, his career grew to high acclaim within the Irish fashion industry and further afield.  

Jorgensen challenged male stereotypes in this country. The media dubbed him ‘the only man in the world of Irish couture’.

There are numerous landmarks in his career as a couturier. In 1962, he was a founding member of the Irish Haute Couture Group and in 1982 he became the original chairperson of the Irish Designer’s Association. Throughout the 1970s, Jorgensen’s clothing gained increasing popularity outside of Ireland. His clothing was stocked in Harrods and Liberty of London, and from this he eventually set up his own London salon in 1979. Jorgensen retired from the fashion industry in 1994.  As well as being a key protagonist in the Irish fashion industry, Jorgensen also made his stamp on Irish social history through his designs. He designed two uniforms for Aer Lingus in in 1975 and 1986. He also created the first uniform for the Irish Army Women’s Service Corps, which was established in 1980. This uniform is highly symbolic of women’s rights in this country, as the formation of the corps meant that women were paid equally to men, though they could not fight in combat. Jorgensen also challenged male stereotypes in this country, as the media dubbed him ‘the only man in the world of Irish couture’.

Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective is located in the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks – home to artefacts of the giants of Irish design like Eileen Gray. It looks back on his long career through a dynamic dialogue between 40 or so garments of day, cocktail and eveningwear, which are supplemented with fashion illustrations, fashion photography and a video installation to create a nuanced experience into Jorgensen’s three and a half decade career. The sheer range of fabrics, styles and cuts is a feast for the eyes. Alex Ward, who is the head curator of textiles and costume at the National Museum of Ireland, worked closely with Jorgensen to select garments for this exhibition. The garments on display were brought together through donations to the Museum, from Jorgensen’s family and friends and from a nation-wide call-out for garments in the Irish Times in 2011. The exhibition is not arranged chronologically but according to the colour and style of the garments. The display scheme was created in tandem with Yvonne Doherty of the National Museum of Ireland’s graphic design department, making the exhibition a true collaboration between designers and curator. The visual impact would have been weaker if it was arranged chronologically. The focus on the colour and style of the garments almost makes the display feel like the work of a visual merchandiser. This is not to say that the garments have been contrived as the pared-down display allows Jorgensen’s designs to speak for themselves, evoking to an extent the original shop window in which many would have been displayed.

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The display scheme was created in tandem with Yvonne Doherty of the National Museum of Ireland’s graphic design department.

Upon entering the exhibition, you are immediately faced with the freestanding exhibition cases – unquestionably the showpieces of both the exhibition and Jorgensen’s career. One of his most expensive jackets is featured in one of these cases. It is a black velvet beaded coat, which at the time of creation in 1989 cost £2,500 and took weeks to make. The dress on the cover of the exhibition brochure also features in the exhibition. It is a one shoulder black and white Grecian style dress from the late 1960s made from one piece of fabric – testament to his skill as a dressmaker. It is on loan to the Museum from contemporary Irish fashion designer Sonya Lennon. One of his bespoke wedding dresses is also on display in these cases; the mannequin is so petite that the conservator Dora Murphy had to use that of a child. Pieces like this give the exhibition a real individualism. It is refreshing to see Jorgensen’s bespoke pieces amongst sample sizes, as it gives us an insight into the breadth of customers who invested, wore and cherished his designs.

Jorgensen’s collections are characterised by their diversity and not so much by their uniformity. While the exhibition appears to be an accidentally eclectic range of styles due to its time span, it should be noted that Jorgensen purposely introduced variety to each of his collections. He created them with the ‘small world’ mentality of Ireland in mind. Alex Ward pointed out that it was diversity in his collections that allowed his clients more exclusivity when investing in one of his garments.

Jorgensen’s original motto of ‘Fabric, Cut and Style’ is embodied at Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective.

There are further details in this exhibition that create a sense of the exclusivity associated with the Jorgensen label. Many elements taken from the setup of a fashion show are transposed onto this exhibition, animating these garments. At the entrance, Jorgensen’s name is projected in lights and smooth ‘80s jazz plays out. The cases and exhibition panels are spotlighted to create a ‘boutique’ feel. The simple bold ‘J’ on display in one of the cases was integral to Jorgensen’s brand identity. The far wall of the exhibition shows video footage from the RTÉ archives of one of Jorgensen’s fashion shows from 1982, offering a glimpse into the height of his career. The monochromatic exhibition panels to the left of the room compliment the vibrant polychrome that characterise of the rest. On these exhibition panels there are details of Patricia Murray’s monochromatic scarf designs. She married Jorgensen in 1968. This simple detail in the exhibition panels creates a wonderful dialogue in the exhibition of her involvement in the label, especially in the more ornate appliqué and hand-beaded designs.

It was somewhat disappointing not to see some of Jorgensen’s designs for women in the Irish workforce. It would have been poignant to have the designs for the Irish Army Women’s Service Corps featured in this particular exhibition, especially in light of the importance of the military history in the permanent exhibitions of this particular Museum. However it would have been difficult to incorporate his workforce designs into an exhibition that is arranged through form and colour schemes. It is easy to forget that many of Jorgensen’s clothing were worn and used to exhaustion by their owners – especially garments like trousers made from Irish tweed. The omission leaves a fragmented picture into the reality of his oeuvre as a designer. Regardless, Jorgensen’s original motto of ‘Fabric, Cut and Style’ is embodied at Ib Jorgensen – A Fashion Retrospective in an engaging reflection into the career of one Ireland’s greatest fashion designers.

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