100 years of Irish fashion in 10 key pieces
With an eye on both tradition and modernity, Emer O'Reilly-Hyland chooses her top fashion items from the past century, one for each decade
But Maeve had greater fashion sense and more success with the cape. She wore a cape – belted, in gold-flecked, hand-dyed, hand-woven tweed – to her husband’s inauguration in 1976. She chose gold to match the predominantly blue with gold décor of St Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle, where the inauguration took place. This was the first of many capes she was to wear as first lady. Capes were highly fashionable garments during 1960s and 1970s, with Ireland’s then leading designers, including Neillí Mulcahy, Ib Jorgensen and Sybil Connolly, including them in their collections.
Perhaps it was Diana and Charles’ wedding in 1981, or maybe it was Dallas or Dynasty, but the 1880s was when we embraced full-on, fabulous glamour. Out went the hippy-dippy 1970s, in came taffeta frocks, big hair and glossy make-up.
As high-street shopping took off, the idea that clothes had to be sensible and last for years became old hat. Inspired by a younger breed of fashion icons, we realised that we could all be princesses, even if just for a day. And every princess needs a frock, one in which she can sweep into a room, into the arms of her prince and dance until dawn.
Thus the taffeta years were born, patronised by Roses of Tralee, Eurovision presenters and debutantes from all over Ireland, in their Kelly green or fuchsia or royal blue watermark silk, complete with full skirt, sashed double-bowed waist and puffed sleeve. Thirty years on, at The VIP Style Awards and the IFTAs, the dress is less pouffy, but the princess dream hasn’t changed – intricate up-styles and false tans are testament to that.
The polo neck
When our first female president needed to be taken seriously among predominantly male international leaders, she chose the polo neck.
To be fair, what she actually chose was a smartly tailored suit, but the problem of what to wear underneath has plagued many a female leader before president Robinson’s inauguration in 1990, and since, with mixed results.
Maggie Thatcher’s pussy bow blouses looked fussy and middle-aged; Angela Merkel’s tendency towards lower necklines with a necklace is distracting and Christine Lagarde’s scarves can, on occasion, outshine her soft-spoken persona. The polo, with its smooth, clean lines, keeps the look simple and says: “I’m in control.” It is also the perfect canvas for a classic neckpiece, which Robinson chose to perfection.
The beginning of the decade, in1990, was also the year that another polo neck received international attention. Sinead O’Connor wore a simple black one when she sang Nothing Compares to You. Its starkness, combined with her shorn head and eyes brimming with tears touched hearts all over the world. The polo, until then the bastion of CND campaigners, intellectuals and RTÉ TV male presenters, had found a new, stylish following.
The racing hat
Picture this: Punchestown, April, the National Hunt Festival; there’s a howling, torrential gale beating across the flat open course, and women with bare legs, short dresses and feathery fascinators are running from tote to parade ring with not a coat or brolly between them.
Fabulous or ridiculous? Well, of course it’s ridiculous in our weather but, still, fancy hats refuse to go away. Our fascination with fascinators seems here to stay, along with best-dressed competitions at race courses all over the land. With prizes like a car or a €10,000 shopping spree, it’s worth going all out, and for that you need a hat.
Everyone knows, you won’t win without one. It’s an Irish phenomenon, undimmed by recession, as fixed in our psyche, as our passion for the track.