Vestiary Storyteller: Ruth Griffin & The Lost Fashion History of Dublin

"What would the world be like without a story to be inherited?"

Amidst richly-detailed analysis of the unbreakable bonds evolving between technology and fashion - resulting in an epoch of designers better-equipped than ever before to embrace copy-and-paste tactics - fashion author and strategist Danilo Venturi posed this intriguing question in his inaugural publication "Luxury Hackers". With current exhaustive production rates threatening the traditional rhythm of fashion supply chains - resulting in little to no means for fresh design concepts to organically take flight - Venturi's theory proposed an elimination of all preceding creation. Wiping the drawing board clean would gift contemporary design talents the ultimate liberty - "to be original rather than going back to the origins". While his statements were centred on a globally-underperforming luxury sector, such musings cannot help but trigger reflection across all aspects of fashion heritage.

Om Diva, Drury Street *

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In actuality, the ramifications of abolishing our sartorial timeline run far deeper than freeing up creative copyright for mod frocks and New Look silhouettes. Each voluminous garment and ascending hemline portrays a vivid insight into its relevant time period - be it consensus-based societies or counter-culture uprisings. The drop-waist dresses of the 20s garner significance far beyond aesthetic when their catalyst is revealed: the groundbreaking unity of females to cast aside their corsets and spearhead equality for their gender. Our humble pair of denim jeans takes on new importance as a celebrated symbol of mid 20th century youth and rebellion - from adorning the legs of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean to being waved as flags during 1960s street protests.

In a world where one can whole-heartedly embrace style shapeshifting - swathed in layers of fabrics and an ankle-grazing skirt one day, and sporting a Mary Quant-esque mini skirt the next - it is incredibly easy to forget just how radical our vintage wardrobe choices once were, breaking down conservative barriers in their era of origin. Throughout centuries of garment history, there could be no doubt that society's evolving characteristics (and impediments) have been inherently linked to our consumption of clothing. To lose this facet of our creative history would lose part of human nature itself.

Ruth Griffin / Rua Ruth *

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Acclaimed fashion historian Ruth Griffin is all too familiar with the concept of lost heritage; this very term having characterised Dublin's fashion domain up until a few short years ago. Delving into the Irish capital's sartorial ancestry in her "Lost Fashion History of Dublin" tours - alongside penning related blog posts on her website, ruaruth.com - Griffin has been widely credited for restoring this crucial component of Dublin's historical fabric from the blink of oblivion. Her annual tour editions weave a colourful narrative of the city's style districts on both sides of the Liffey, adding layers of insight to beloved landmarks and breathing life into long-forgotten edifices. It's little wonder that evocative storytelling is a Griffin family trait - her interactive commentary gives the term "history lesson" entirely new connotations, captivating fashion newcomers and long-standing enthusiasts in equal measure.

Enraptured onlookers during the Lost Fashion History of South William Street tour *

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As any past attendee of Griffin's tours will vouch for, a key facet of her universal appeal is found in the parallels she seamlessly draws between bygone eras and contemporary society. One of numerous examples can be found in her enthralling South William Street tours - which I had the pleasure of attending last August - wherein she begins by regaling attendees with the shopping habits of Lady Amelia, wife of Lord Powerscourt (and original resident of the eponymous townhouse centre). Her consumption of fashion was indicative of any high-ranking, late 18th century female with a discerning eye. Having visually absorbed the latest style catalogues arrived straight from Paris - then indisputably considered the fashion capital of the world - she would be transported from her residence to the sought-after silk mercers of Dame Street with an exact design in mind, primed to select her premium fabrics and have her measurements taken for a new ensemble. Within the short space of a week, this on-trend creation would arrive straight to her doorstep - the first instance of "fast fashion" in recorded history, as Griffin aptly describes it, with a speed none too dissimilar to that of present-day manufacturers.

Om Diva's vibrant Atelier 27 - a sparkling finish to August's South William Street tour

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With Dublin's burgeoning design industry centred on initiatives regarding the future of fashion, Griffin's groundbreaking tours are a testament to the fact that we must champion our culturally-rich past in order to move forward. Their meeting points, typically in groups of 15 to 20, also make for fantastic platforms of discussion and anecdote-sharing: participant ages can range from late teens to early nineties, all as equally taken by their host's tangible enthusiasm. In the midst of her wildly-popular summer season, I spoke with Griffin regarding her familial ties to sartorial storytelling, the evolution of her Lost Tour research and the timeless quality of fashion heritage:

What first sparked your discovery of - and enthusiasm for - Dublin's rich fashion history?

A number of different things did. I grew up in Sligo but visited Dublin frequently to see my grandparents, it was on these visits to Dublin that sparked my interest in the city. My Dad was a History teacher and a great storyteller so when we drove around the city as a child the whole city became animated for me  and was full of amazing stories of both historical figures and family members. It definitely sparked my imagination. My study into the fashion history in Dublin by studying the businesses which peopled the streets over the years began in London College of Fashion, where I studied an MA in History and Culture of Fashion. I wrote a thesis called The Lost Fashion History of South William Street, I had been inspired a couple of years previously when I worked in a fashion factory in called MA International on Newmarket Square, all the tailors and cutters were in their 60s at the time and I heard a lot of stories of their days learning 'the rag trade' on South William Street in Dublin. It was this idea of Dublin having a garment district which became a fascinating area of research for me.

The original Gentleman Outfitters entrance floor, the workplace of Griffin's grandfather - an intriguing stop-off in her South William Street tour*

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What aspects of your Lost Fashion History of Dublin tours do you hope resonate with fashion history newcomers and connoisseurs alike?

 I like revealing hidden gems and the amazing stories I have collected about the city. The Lost Tours are a way of celebrating the glamour of the city and how and where Dubliners shopped and showcased fashion over the centuries.

Have your tours' itineraries seen much change/evolution since their inaugural series?

The tours have developed over time as I have made some amazing friends with some of the businesses I drop into along the way. The tours have become a forum where the audience contribute their memories and stories which in turn enriches my material.

The technicoloured treasures of Jean Cronin Vintage - a South William Street tour highlight

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 Having honed your craft studying in NCAD, the London College of Fashion and (following this artistic, history-enriched education) working in Liberty of London and the Abbey Theatre's Costume Design department, how do you feel these eclectic experiences have shaped your knowledge and approach towards design and fashion heritage?

I think I have been very lucky to be able to explore so many different fashion avenues and try out different aspects of the fashion business. I am a romantic at heart so you can see why I was attracted to the above establishments. Working at Liberty of London was amazing, it was like being in living history - spending my days in a crazy, eccentric manor house in the middle of central London.  I had meetings in medieval style boardrooms and went to fabulous launches and fashion shows in their beautiful atriums but it was the creative people who worked at Liberty who really taught me that the glamour is in the people who create a brand rather than in the brand itself. It also taught me that if heritage is respected and loved it can endure for many generations.

Jean Cronin Vintage

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From the perspective of a fashion historian, do you feel enough emphasis is being placed on supporting and spotlighting this key aspect of Dublin's cultural heritage - for the benefit of both Irish inhabitants and incoming tourists? 

I think we still have a long way to go protecting our heritage and providing interesting cultural activities for both Irish and foreign visitors but times are changing and so is the city, so who knows how things will develop  in the future but one thing is for certain - we have so much to offer.

59 South William Street - now home to the artisanal Fireplace Barbershop *

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What does a perfect Rua Ruth weekend in Dublin entail?

I love walks by the beach, long leisurely brunches, vintage nights out (Film Fatale is a favourite), yoga and thrifting - Dun Laoighaire is my hot-spot, I am an active kind of girl it can be hard to get me to sit still for long.

Aside from your treasured domestic haunts, what are your favourite locations to absorb fashion history across the globe?

London really is the capital of culture and the museums and fashion focused exhibitions are world class, but I find there is always an interesting museum hidden in many corners of the globe - be it the excellent Salvatore Ferragamo shoe museum in Florence or the Hunt Museum in Limerick. I always try and poke my nose into even the littlest county museum as there is something intriguing in there.

What can we expect to see next from Rua Ruth?

Well the most logic progression of all of this research is a book! Watch this space.

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While Griffin's tour-group visits to vintage boutiques are a vivid feast for the eyes - always accompanied by insightful stories of the hotels, music schools and textile meccas their buildings once boasted - my favourite moment of her South William Street instalment occurred well away from the array of tea dresses and sparkling of jewels. Coming to a stop outside of an unoccupied building on South William Street, Griffin revealed that this structure once hosted a fantastic tailor's factory during the mid 20th century that staggered South William and Clarendon Street (one row behind). Alongside the wonderful work of its industrious employees, the factory's owner Jack Clarke - a fashion visionary, businessman and retailer - is also credited for giving Sybil Connolly her starting point in Dublin's fashion scene, later inspiring her to pioneer distinctively Irish fabrics in her internationally-acclaimed pieces. This formerly-inconspicuous building was momentarily restored to its former glory during Griffin's engaging tale, giving hope that its jaded appearance will soon be replaced by a new chapter in its colourful history. With the inaugural tour of 2017's highly-anticipated series now ready to book - while ruaruth.com remains continually-updated with fashion-history secrets across the globe - there could be no question that Griffin's vestiary storytelling makes even the most sombre of Dublin's streets come alive with vibrancy once more.

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Whether you're present shopping for a bona-fide fashion enthusiast - or indulging in a spot of self-gifting - there could be no better option than Ruth Griffin's Cultural Christmas Gift: a coveted place on the first of her 2017 tours, The Lost Fashion History of Grafton Street, set for the 22nd of April. Centred around Ireland's premier shopping street, in true Rua Ruth fashion, attendees will gain unrivalled insights into the area's past and present leading protagonists - from independent businesses to department-store giants alike - while shining a spotlight on their fashionable consumers. Perfectly summarised as "a trip down memory lane, a time travelling experience and a look behind the scenes at Dublin’s fashion world today", you can click "here" to secure your spot on this popular highlight of the capital's fashion calendar.

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Alongside 2017's planned tour instalments, Ruth Griffin also makes regular appearances at creative festivals - keep up-to-date on social media to see which audiences she'll bewitch next. Additional tour insights, interviews and anecdotes are found on her award-winning blog ruaruth.com

* photography by Tra My Nguyen Hoang, whose beautifully contemplative blog posts can be found on Apollo's Adventures

Amelia xx

La Femme Éclectique