Living Vintage: 'I think our mum would be delighted her clothes are being enjoyed by so many people'
Sisters Bridget and Marian's vintage fashion show in Belfast's Grand Opera House this Thursday will raise money for the Sean Crummey Foundation. They tell Stephanie Bell how their late mother is the inspiration behind it all.
The 1950s will be brought alive on the stage of Belfast's Grand Opera House this week when the 120-year-old theatre breaks new ground to host its first ever fashion show.
Living Vintage is a fashion show like no other. Audiences will be treated to two hours of nostalgia and fun as the carefully scripted presentation takes them on a trip down memory lane to 1950s Belfast.
A large collection of authentic fashion from the decade of swing dresses and fedora hats is the star of an upbeat and entertaining show which has been taking Northern Ireland by storm since it was first created by two local sisters who have a passion for vintage fashion.
Retired school teacher Bridget Owens, from Strangford, and her sister, Marian Keenan, a carer from Ballymena, initially created the show as a one-off fund raising event.
It was such a hit that it soon took on a life of its own and now the girls are inundated with invitations to stage it on behalf of a whole host of local charities.
For Marian and Bridget, it is a labour of love and they don't make a single penny for their efforts, which to date have raised thousands of pounds for charities including their own nominated charity, Cancer Research.
This Thursday's show in the Grand Opera House is being staged in aid of a charity set up in memory of Sean Crummey, the famed creator of the popular political satire The Folks on the Hill.
Sean died in November 2011 from a cancer-related illness and the Sean Crummey Foundation was set up as a tribute to him, to raise funds in support of research into bowel cancer at the Queen's University of Belfast Centre for Cancer Research & Cell Biology.
The Grand Opera House is also pleased to be breaking the mould by bringing something new to its stage.
Ross Hickey, head of Programming and Sales, says: "The Grand Opera House will celebrate its 120th birthday this coming December, so it most definitely qualifies as the ideal venue for a Vintage Fashion Show.
"Although how the theatre is used has diversified quite a lot in the last 120 years, this is the first time we have hosted a fashion show. We are delighted that our first foray into fashion will support the Sean Crummey Foundation and much needed cancer research."
Living Vintage is very much a family affair, with husbands, sons, daughters and sisters all playing a part in the production of what are now sell-out shows staged right across Northern Ireland.
Friends, too, have been roped in and even Bridget's former principal and teaching colleagues' from Oakwood Special School have been known to help out.
Taking what is essentially their hobby to a prestigious venue like the Grand Opera House is a real tribute to their efforts and the girls feel genuinely privileged to have this chance.
Bridget says: "We are so thrilled and honoured that people think we are good enough to go to the Grand Opera House. We do get standing ovations everywhere we go and we know how much people appreciate the show, but you don't get any bigger in Belfast than the Opera House and it's amazing to think we are going to be there."
Marian is just as delighted. She says: "Where else in Belfast would you want to be on stage?
"It means so much that what was our wee hobby has progressed to the point where it is in demand and it really is hard to believe that we will be in the Opera House."
A sweet story wrapped in nostalgia - just like the show itself - is behind its launch.
The girls inherited their love of vintage clothes from their late mum Rose O'Connell, who looked after her favourite outfits so well that they survived through the decades.
When they lost their mum 17 years ago, the sisters inherited many fine pieces of her clothing, which form the basis of their collection. Over the years the pair have added to it.
Many pieces of the couture showcased by Living Vintage have been given to the girls by members of their audiences, who were delighted at the chance to give a new lease of life to favourite outfits kept in storage for decades.
Bridget says: "Mummy always had nice clothes and always kept them very good, she was also handy with a needle and we inherited these skills.
"When mummy died we got all these lovely clothes which we loved to dress up in. We would have had family theme days like an Audrey Hepburn day or a Mrs Havisham day and dress up and go to each other's houses and it was great fun.
"Ten years ago our sister Patricia, who is an indoor bowler, got to the Special Olympics and we had a couple of weeks to raise £1,000 for her and decided to put on a show.
"Everyone thought it was a fantastic idea and it just snowballed from there. We decided to do another one and each time we try to raise money for our nominated charity, Cancer Research.
"Now we put on about eight to 10 shows a year and have to constantly turn people down because we just can't fulfil all the requests.
"It is non-profit-making; we do it for the love of it. It takes a team of about 14 of us to put on a show with eight models and we have a white van man, Jimmy, who takes everything to the venues for us and we couldn't do a show without him.
"My four children all help out. My daughter Aisleen helps out front of house and backstage, Eimear is the wardrobe mistress and son Sean serves refreshments while my son Maurice does light and sound.
"My two sisters help out and my two nieces and both of our husbands; we couldn't do it without them.
"The show is very professional, very sleek and very funny. I tell a story about Marian's plight to find a man in the 1950s and we keep the whole thing light and entertaining. Marian really makes the show, she is great fun."
The girls thoroughly research the history of each town before they visit, bringing in names of local shops from the 50s, well known local people and venues to help bring their show to life.
Everything in the show, from jewellery, hats, accessories and clothes are 100% authentic. The only thing the girls have had to compromise on are some of the shoes for the outfits, as it has been difficult to source original 1950s shoes to fit the models.
This week's Belfast audience is in for a real treat, with a carefully themed show taking them on a journey back to the elegant 1950s.
From day dresses with frivolous frills, glamorous evening attire with pretty trims, a day at the races, suits and jackets, plus a bridal collection all accessorised with vintage jewellery hats, bags, shoes, gloves and seamed stockings - it will take its audience on a journey back to another time.
"We have gorgeous dresses that will wow the audience, to little black dresses that every girl has in her wardrobe, to cocktail dresses and Donegal Tweed and little cotton day dresses," says Bridget.
"They are items that still suit our lives today, since we have all seen this style on the silver screen or in grandmothers' houses and we aim to bring it to life on stage.
"Young people look to certain periods of history and wish they had experienced it, while others who have lived through it love to remember it.
"The feedback and the fun and enjoyment that we receive during and after our shows are really very touching and people tell us it brings back so many memories. You only need one hat or one suit to set off a trip down memory lane.
"For us it is about keeping the clothes alive and not locked away, and also making money for charity."
And as for the girls' mum, whose clothes have inspired such a wonderful way to support local charities, Marian says: "I think she would be delighted to know her clothes, which she looked after so well, were being enjoyed by so many people and I would like to think she might be proud of us as well.
"It is something she instilled in us and a fitting tribute to her.
"We don't get any money out of it and for us it is a good way of giving something back to society and to those who are less fortunate.
"Everyone, including men and young people, say they enjoy it and get so much out of it, and for us that is wonderful."
A grand old show
The Living Vintage show at the Grand Opera House on Thursday promises style all the way with a wine and canapes reception before the show's 7.30pm start.
Living Vintage is a celebration of how to wear the style from the 1940 'make-do-and-mend' phase to the glamorous era of the New Look 1950s, featuring a selection of haute couture including hats by designers Mr John and Dior.
From the austerity of the Second World War to "the glorification of the female form" in the 1950s, this era is brought to life on the catwalk by models emulating the gentleness and femininity of this period.
All proceeds for the show will go to the Sean Crummey Foundation. Sean wrote and starred in the BBC's hit political satire The Folks on the Hill which was aired for the first time in 2001 and over the next 10 years became a firm favourite on TV and radio. With his gentle, humorous political satire, the programme showcased Sean's comic genius. Often described as "the ultimate gentleman", Sean died on November 13, 2011, from a cancer-related illness.
The fund, established in his memory, supports research into bowel cancer by the Queen's University of Belfast Centre for Cancer Research & Cell Biology.
Tickets are priced at £20 and are available at the Grand Opera House box office or tel: 077 71 88864. You can also pay at the door.
■ Find out more about Living Vintage fashion shows at www.livingvintagefashion.com