How to ensure it will all be alright on debs night

It’s debs season, and the search is on for showstopper dresses. It’s an expensive business, with some spending up to €1.000 on ‘the one’, and that’s just the start of it. Debutantes, mothers, style advisors and dress shop owners reveal what’s involved in the preparations


Cometh the summer, cometh the debs and cometh the dresses. As the trauma of the Leaving Cert fades and thoughts turn to fashion and celebration, female school leavers in Ireland are out hunting in their hordes for the perfect dress for that red carpet moment, that chance to shine. Though impossible to quantify, the fact that more than 26,000 of them sat the Leaving Cert at more than 500 schools last year gives some indication of the scale of this annual – and costly – rite of passage for the Irish debutante.

Many events start early. “The country debs start in July and the Dublin debs in August, September, October and November. The last is Belvedere in January,” says Karen Maher of Frock ‘n’ Fabulous in Dublin 2, who, like many others catering for the demand, keeps a note of where every dress goes to in order to avoid the nightmare of the same dress being worn to the same event.

DEBSMARSHA_WEB“There is murder if that happens,” notes Marian Gale, a seasoned player on the south side of the capital. “It’s like bush telegraph and everyone knows about it. My dresses are made by my bridal people; it’s not like Coast or Debenhams.”

It is a long day and girls go to exhaustive lengths to get their upholstery right and make the event an unforgettable one.

But there are practical considerations. “They are wearing the dresses from 5.30pm in the afternoon until 11.30am the next day, so it’s a long night and they need something that fits well and that will last the night,” says Gale.

“The dresses they want are always long and hardly ever black. The bigger sizes have lace-up backs that do wonders for the figure and hold them in – in all the right places. Some 90 per cent would have bought their Communion dresses from me.”

For Sinead Foyle from Heywood Community School in Ballinakill, Co Laois, one of 120 debs from her school heading to The Bridge House in Tullamore next Thursday, the search for her dress took place in Dublin over two days, guided by her aunt Jackie, a health and beauty specialist.

The Hollywood glamour that Sinead was searching for was a far cry from what Jackie remembers of her own teenage farewells to school after the Leaving.

“We had afternoon tea with the nuns dressed in our school uniforms. The debs’ phenomenon in the 1970s was slow to reach Durrow,” she adds with a smile.

In Malahide, the pair started their search in Cari’s Closet, a popular spot packed with other potential purchasers and were handed a ticket marked 83 and advised that 77, 78 and 79 were in the changing rooms. “I reckoned we would be spending the whole day there. It is not a quick buy. They all want to be unique and different and they all have to try things on,” says Jackie.

There was one dress that took Sinead’s fancy, but at €450 was way beyond their budget. In the event, she found exactly what she wanted the next day in Folkster in Temple Bar – a beaded top and skirt – which along with a pair of shoes came to €217. “I am really excited about it now,” Sinead says.


Inspired by photographs on Instagram or by style-makers such as Emma Stone, Kendall Jenner or Suki Waterhouse, teenage girls go on the hunt for similar looks.

“They all want to look like Blake Lively, with the barrel curls on the side, and many of them have a tan from Magaluf, or wherever they go en masse. A lot of them have their own Facebook pages and put up pictures of what they are wearing to ensure that nobody else copies them,” says Gale, who has her own Facebook page and Snapchat profile.

Rentals in many shops start at around €150 upwards, but Nicole de Silva, whose debs is in the Osprey Hotel, near Naas, Co Kildare, in September, opted to get her dress made.


“I am getting a tight fitting backless dress in deep purple with a mermaid hem. I am really picky and want it to be unique and it will be exactly what I want.” The word “mermaid” was fished out regularly in descriptions of popular styles.

“We start selling in February to the country girls who come from Cork, Donegal or Kerry looking for something different and whose debs are early in July.

“The last week in July is hectic for the Dub debs who are back from their holidays, before the results come out,” according to Suzanne Chambers of Elliott Chambers in Dundrum, who also says that many girls buy online.

“When a new trend comes in, it takes a while to become popular. Dresses can cost up to €800 or €900, but on average the price is €350 to €450 for a really nice dress, though we do keep a few styles at €150 to €250. Some girls get invited to two or three debs and will splash out on their own but go for less expensive numbers for the others,” she says.

Georgia May Power, a Villiers graduate from Limerick, has already been to a debs last year, when she wore a white lace dress from Be Fabulous in Limerick. She may wear it again, or a new one in red with the requisite “wow” factor. She hasn’t decided yet.


The staggering cost of all this alarms many parents. It’s not just the dress, but the shoes, the bag, the jewellery and then the hair, the make up, the spray tan, the manicures, pedicures, false eyelashes, eyebrows – not to speak of the tickets and transport.

“You are talking of over €1,000, even with a rented dress,” reckons dress shop owner Kara Maher, though many point out that even at half that, it is a considerable expenditure.

For Imelda O’Brien, mother of two girls, the event with all its paraphernalia and associated costs, comes at a difficult time.

“Because they have just finished the Leaving Cert and all the extra grinds, it is expensive. The girls are all competing with each other and don’t go out to buy cheap dresses.

“But the other side is that they have worked so hard for the past two years and they deserve the fun it entails and it is an exciting day. You have to celebrate happy times.”

With special thanks to Amber and Marian Gale, Suzanne Elliott, Jackie O’Brien, Rebecca Morgan, Karen Maher, Clodagh McNamee, Brian and Margaret Moore, Marsha Moore, Lydia Callan and Clare Manning

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