Date of Birth: March 17 1934, Manchester, UK
Birth Name: Pat McDonagh
Pat McDonagh, was a fashion designer who led her own “British Invasion” when she moved to North America in 1966, introducing first Canada, then New York, to bell-bottoms, minidresses, jumpsuits and maxi-coats.
While studying at Manchester University and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Pat McDonagh had begun to make initial forays into the fashion world as a model for magazines and television. Yet the work failed to satisfy her and she turned instead to design, opening two style-conscious boutiques at Horwich and Worsley, Lancashire. Soon she was making costumes for the Beatles, and slinky leather numbers and python-buckled coats for Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers “a very sophisticated, slightly fanciful take on what was happening in the swinging London club scene of the time”, as she put it.
Arriving in Toronto, by contrast, was “like landing in the Dark Ages”, at least as far as the outfits were concerned. Old-fashioned styles, long skirts and polyester dresses dominated, and there were no sheer tights to be found. The poor state of the country’s textile industry and its high import tariffs on European fabric further compounded the difficulty of creating innovative designs.
Pat McDonagh’s response was to open a new boutique on Bloor Street, christened in characteristically tongue-in-cheek manner The Establishment. Orders began to come in from across Toronto and New York, and soon she opened a factory for what she termed her “Re-Establishment” creations, selling to upscale North American store chains such as Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel. Her flowing designs for evening wear swiftly found favour with Toronto’s “glitter girls”, the elite group of socialites behind the city’s high-profile fund-raisers, and with celebrities such as Cher and Ella Fitzgerald.
Pat McDonagh was unstinting in her efforts to promote and redefine the “English look” abroad. A self-confessed perfectionist with a keen attention to detail, she drew heavily on the fashions of the 1930s and 1940s for inspiration, emphasising the feminine silhouette with bands of colour, ruffles or glitter beading. One pleated dress won her the 1982 New York Times Award for design excellence and became a long-running bestseller. Across the Canadian fashion world it was known simply as “the red dress” even though, in several of its later incarnations, it was no longer red.
The eldest of four children, Patricia McDonagh was born in Manchester on St Patrick’s Day 1934 into a family of Irish heritage. It was her mother who taught her how to sew and instilled in her a strong perfectionist tendency: “[She] never praised us”, Pat later recalled. “We were never good enough.” Prior to university she attended the Loreto Convent sixth form college, Moss Side, and drifted into the modelling industry under the employ of the fashion houses Jacques Helm and Maggy Rouff. From Paris she would bring home issues of Elle magazine, her mother replicating the designs with remnants scavenged from a fabric wholesalers.
An eye for style was not all that Pat McDonagh took with her to Canada, where she moved with her husband after he got a job with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At a 1966 interview with the fashion editor of the Toronto Star she introduced a then unknown young model called Twiggy, who had posed for her in photoshoots back in England. Though the Star’s editor was not taken with the teenager’s waiflike physique, Pat remained one of her most enthusiastic backers during her rise to the international stage, insisting that Twiggy was “the right image for my clothes”.
Pat McDonagh also enjoyed a reputation for eccentric behaviour, often appearing on the streets of Toronto with a parrot on her shoulder. She befriended the local homeless population, and was prone to acts of sudden generosity. The television personality and fashion columnist Jeanne Beker recalled taking unexpected delivery of a pair of valuable python-skin platform shoes, to match the outfit she had worn to the premiere of The Lion King stage show on the previous evening.