In the late 1960s, fashion designer Pat McDonagh was a driving force behind Toronto’s transition from tame to trendy. Without her vision and determination, the radical mod look, then storming through the streets of British fashion, might have taken longer to cross the Atlantic.
Over her lengthy career, Pat McDonagh’s designs have been worn by Cher, Ella Fitzgerald and possibly even the Beatles. Her creations also appeared in the 1960s TV series The Avengers, sported by Diana Rigg.
Ms. McDonagh won a New York Times Award for design excellence in 1992, an award for best shoe from the Bata Shoe Museum in 2000, and, in 2003, a lifetime achievement award from the Fashion Design Council of Canada, an organization she co-founded in the early days of her business. Her clothing was sold in prestigious stores such as Holt Renfrew, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and Bonwit Teller.
Retirement was never an option for Pat McDonagh. Well into her 70s, she received accolades for the military-style coat worn by former governor-general Michaëlle Jean to greet Barack Obama during his 2009 visit to Ottawa. Although she never smoked, Pat McDonagh died of lung cancer on May 31 in Toronto. She was 80.
The cognoscenti of the fashion world, famous clients and those to whom she’d simply been kind were among the 250 mourners who attended her funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Toronto. Pat McDonagh had a generous side and frequently participated in charitable causes such as the Dare to Wear Love fashion show to raise awareness for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The foundation, in turn, supports other organizations that assist people living with HIV and AIDS. In a quote she gave to Canadian Press, Pat McDonagh said, “I think we’re given the glory of walking down a runway and everything that goes with it but I think at the same time, as a designer you have a responsibility to use that platform to do something a little more important than showing off.”
Showing off her wit, however, was never a problem for Ms. McDonagh. In his eulogy, Pat McDonagh’s brother Michael told a story about a documentary that was filmed toward the end of her life. “The director’s final question was, ‘Tell me, Pat, how does it feel to be dying? Quick as a flash and with a wicked glint in her eye, she retorted, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never died before.’” At the end of his tribute the crowd applauded. Former television host Dini Petty said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a funeral where that happened. Pat would’ve loved it.”
Pat McDonagh’s ancestral roots lay in staunchly Catholic Ireland. At the turn of the 1900s, her grandfather, an ornamental plasterer, left his homeland to settle in Manchester, England. In 1931, his son Alex married a gifted seamstress named Josie McLaughlin. Three years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, in Harpurhey, an inner city area of Manchester, they had their first child, Patricia Mary McDonagh. Three other children followed. Pat McDonagh’s father worked his way up in sales for various companies. He became successful enough to build his family a house in a leafy middle-class suburb south of Manchester. Both parents, from poor working-class backgrounds, were determined that their children would attend university. Josie McDonagh saved money by utilizing her natural aptitude for sewing. She upholstered furniture and made clothes as well as curtains. She sold cushions at her church bazaars.
As a teenager, Pat McDonagh bought the fashion magazine Elle to show her mother pictures of dresses she liked. Michael McDonagh said, “My mother would search the Jewish fabric wholesalers for remnants, then she would throw the fabric over your body, start cutting and make a perfect replica of a picture with no pattern. It was remarkable and surely where Pat inherited her skill.”