Belfast Telegraph

Royal wedding: The Mayo man who designed two dresses

As Prince Harry and Meghan Markle walk down the aisle today, Bairbre Power uncovers the story of couturier John Cavanagh, a talented man from the Republic who designed not one, but two royal wedding dresses…

Sitting in the V&A Art and Design archives in London's Earl's Court, sifting through boxes of documents and royal wedding memorabilia, is a rewarding experience for a fashion enthusiast. However, on the eve of the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, my research mission took on an added frisson of excitement and intrigue.

I had requested to view, by appointment, archival material relating to the Irish couturier John Cavanagh, who was a society fashion favourite in London of the 1950s and '60s, dressing royalty, socialites and stars of stage and screen.

Cavanagh was a member of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc), an exclusive band of top-end couturiers like Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies who, between them, dressed the Queen for many years.

Cavanagh's salon in Mayfair's Curzon Street was frequented by a chic clientele but undoubtedly the most high profile period of his career involved two royal brides.

In 1961 when Princess Marina's son, the Duke of Kent, married Katharine Worsley in York Minster, the Irishman was invited to design the dress. The groom's mother, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, who married the Duke of Kent in 1934, was already a fan of his and the wedding was hailed as one of the most dazzling gatherings of European royalty for many years.

Front row guests included the Queen (the groom's first cousin), Prince Philip and the Queen Mother, all of whom had a bird's eye view of the dramatic 15ft double train. For many royal wedding watchers, Cavanagh's dress crafted from 237 yards of diaphanous French fabric that shimmered, still remains a favourite more than half a century later.

If the bride and her mother-in-law were anxious, as reported in some circles, about the scale of the gown in advance, the Irishman was proved right in the end.

Cavanagh's royal star was ascending two years later, when Princess Alexandra of Kent married the Honourable Angus Ogilvy in Westminster Abbey, Cavanagh was again invited to mastermind something wonderful.

His vision was translated into magnolia-tinted cotton lace and he described how "the dress flows in a simple unbroken line silhouetting a slender waist line, into a very long train cut in one with the skirt. The closely moulded bodice has a high rounded neckline and long, close-fitting sleeves". The veil, which interestingly, was in the same fabric as the dress, was 20ft long and edged with a wide border of old Valenciennes lace which belonged to Princess Nicholas of Greece.

Two high profile royal weddings in three years was quite an achievement for the boy who left school at 17 to take a job picking up pins for a couturier. There was the added satisfaction that many guests were wearing his designs, too. But what do we know about the early years of the handsome Irishman who broke through into a very exclusive circle of royals?

John Bryan Cavanagh was born in Co Mayo on September 28, 1914, and educated at St Paul's school in London. Back in Dublin, I tracked down Cavanagh's birth certificate from 1914 which was registered in the town of Belmullet and in the district of Binghamstown.

His father, Cyril Cavanagh, was listed as a merchant, with an address at Pembridge Gardens, London. His mother was a Murphy before her marriage and her name, in a spidery script somewhat difficult to read, appears to say 'Annie' Francis.

At 18, he was appointed a junior assistant at the newly opened London branch of the prestigious House of Molyneux. When war broke out, he enlisted and his papers in the archive include an outline of how he joined the infantry in August 1940 and later joined the British Army Intelligence Corps.

Whatever about his duties, it is perhaps fanciful to describe Cavanagh as going from 'spy' to 'couturier', but after being de-mobbed, he met Pierre Balmain who offered him work in Paris. Finally, in January 1952, Cavanagh established his own fashion house.

That spring, his first collection earned him rave reviews for his fabrics. The collection included boleros in pique and a ballgown in Irish lace studded with crystals. The following year, his collection was named 'Coronation' to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and was a success.

I have to admit my heart was beating extra fast as I opened the assortment of grey folders contained in the boxes at the V&A - envelopes containing drawings and large scale ink drawings of the finished dresses.

One definitely got a sense of the Irishman from his correspondence and his careful notations in pencil, but by far the most exhilarating moments were untying the cotton ribbon and unfolding the layers of cream tissue which revealed off-cuts of fabric from both the Duchess of Kent's 1961 wedding gown, with its semi-shimmering fabric ordered from Judith Barbier in Paris, and Princess Alexandra's dress fabric adorned with 3D decorative acorns and oak leaves.

It was fascinating perusing the back stories to the dresses, the correspondence associated with ordering fabric, the replies in French, the coloured hand drawings of the dress, the Princess' going away outfit, the pageboys and bridesmaids, of which Princess Anne was one.

One folder is restricted to the public until the year 2044 - it contains the measurements of the bridesmaids from 1963!

Cavanagh's own press release typed on fine paper provide flourishing insights into the dress and his expert eye for planning details. This was, of course, his second royal wedding and I laughed out loud in the quiet reading room when I came across the line proposing a 'watch-dog'.

In short, Cavanagh proposed to attend to the bride with his staff at Kensington Palace on the morning of the wedding and then go ahead of them to Westminster Cathedral but "leaving behind Miss Gladys Fitch as 'watch-dog' who would assist the Princess into her car".

Like so many designers, the advent of ready-to-wear in the boutique culture of the 1960s triggered a slow-down in couture and in the early 1970s, Cavanagh closed his salon. His genius for tailoring was shared far and wide and lucky are those who still have his Vogue Couturier patterns.

After an illustrious career, John Cavanagh died on March 24, 2003, aged 88.

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