My 1980s debs: a borrowed wedding dress and big hair

Broadside: Sure we were only gorgeous, we thought: the height of fashion

A 1980s debs memory: Arlene Harris (right) in her neighbour’s wedding dress

A 1980s debs memory: Arlene Harris (right) in her neighbour’s wedding dress

 

Picture the scene: giggling girls trussed up in swathes of pastel-coloured taffeta and lace, hair permed off their scalps, patches of powdery foundation across their bare shoulders and eyelids liberally enhanced in hues of pink and purple, giving the impression of either extreme tiredness or suspicious bruising.

I am not talking about toddlers running amok with their mothers’ make-up bag nor am I referring to some sort of fancy dress party, I am in fact reminiscing about my debs night – or “grad”, as we called it in those days.

It was the mid-1980s and glamour was thin on the ground

All of us in borrowed dresses, tripping over hems as we crowded around the sole mirror in a bedroom thick with hairspray fumes and illicit cigarette smoke. Sure we were only gorgeous, we thought: the height of fashion.

It was the mid-1980s and glamour was thin on the ground. Getting the opportunity to wear anything other than either Dr Martens and leggings or ra-ra skirts and luminous belts, depending on your style clique, was a wonderful experience.

However, while it was great fun, my end-of-school ball was a far cry from the elaborate events today’s teenagers enjoy.

Different species

The prom season is upon us again. Up and down the country, girls will be panicking about make-up trials, hairdressing appointments and, worse, the awful possibility that someone within a 100-mile radius may be wearing a similar dress.

The outfits today are so far removed from what my friends and I wore, we may as well have been a different species. In modern Ireland sleek, silky numbers are the order of the day, wonderfully complemented by their perfectly bronzed, plucked and gym-honed bodies.

Hairstyles will also be discreet and elegant – no frantic backcombing here, thank you very much.

In contrast to our “hidden under the dress so it doesn’t really matter” shoes, footwear will be sophisticated and either match or clash with the ubiquitous clutch-bag, depending on the personality of the wearer.

It wasn’t safe, it certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was definitely a laugh

Nails and make-up will also be shown off to perfection as most debutantes will have had several trials to ensure everything is just right for the night of their lives.

Meanwhile back in the Stone Age, my friends and I piled into the back of a taxi. I seem to recall that eight of us travelled together in a Ford Cortina. There were three skinny boys in the back, each with a girl sporting a voluminous dress and huge hair on their laps, while another pair sat in the front. It wasn’t safe, it certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was definitely a laugh.

Mind you, I can’t say that our poor unfortunate dates felt the same as they endured a 30-minute drive to the nearest big town (we were the original country girls) enveloped in a cloud of Anais Anais, with their poor knees crying out for mercy.

Finally arriving at our destination, our hair fluffed, mauve lipstick in place, we all tumbled gracelessly out of the car and smoothed down our frocks, ready to go. It kills me to admit this, but my dress was actually my older neighbour’s wedding gown.

Low budget

Teenage girls today seem more poised, fashion-conscious and groomed than we were in the 1980s, but to give us credit, we didn’t have much of a budget, the facility to shop online or watch make-up tutorials in our spare time.

We had no choice but to be content with the loan of a dress, a slightly too-tight pair of shoes and the contents of our mother’s make-up bags.

Apparently the average debutante today will spend €350-€1,200 on their debs. That’s a lot of dosh for a night out, even if it does include tickets, transport, hair, make-up and dress.

I probably didn’t spend more than €50 on my debs. It was way back in the Dark Ages and we were in the middle of a recession, but it was fairly thrifty even by those standards.

Youth is the best accessory, and all the young men and women will look fabulous without needing to rack up a huge credit card bill

Would I tell my teenage self anything regarding that night? Maybe tone down the perm and the deeply unsubtle eyeshadow. Also, have at least one go at applying fake tan before the big night.

But the fact we had to make do with what we had probably reduced some of the anxiety of the pre-ball preparations.

Youth is the best accessory, and all the young men and women will look fabulous without needing to rack up a huge credit card bill.

My advice to the current crop: have fun and don’t worry too much about sourcing the perfect crystal-encrusted clutch or must-have lipstick. None of that will matter after the first 10 minutes.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to root out my sateen Bolero jacket.

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