Despite the swirling conversations around sustainability, it can be hard to find occasion-wear dresses, more specifically debs dresses, that are chic and keep your conscious clean. With few sustainable occasion-wear brands, the only options are typical dresses dripping in sustainability no-nos and sartorial excess, like rich embellishments, sequins and synthetic fabrics. And that’s before you factor in how often the dress will be worn — in most cases, only once. But can party-ready and planet-friendly coexist?
The latest deb-goers are all about reusing, repurposing, re-wearing, and renting, with sustainability, individuality, and price at the forefront of dress decisions. “I didn’t want to spend money on a dress I might only wear once. Sustainability was a factor in my decision as a lot of materials and clothes are wasted today, and I didn’t want to contribute to this,” says 19-year-old Sadhbh Stack, who made her debs this year and opted for a gold embellished gown that her older sister bought from Asos in 2018. “I’m very close to my 24-year-old sister and she had a dress that I loved, so it was an easy decision to wear that. It cost me €30 to get it altered, and I was delighted.”
A family member’s wardrobe also unearthed a hidden gem for 20-year-old Alanna Power, who made her debs in 2021. “Don’t be afraid to look in the back of your mum’s, aunties’ or granny’s wardrobe as you never know what treasures you may find,” she advises. Even if the dress you discover doesn’t exactly fit your vision, it can be altered to something original and sentimental, while still not coming close to the price of a new style.
Having searched for a debs dress in pinkish maroon to no avail, Power discovered that her mother had the exact shade of dress sitting in her wardrobe. “The dress was originally bought by my mum Róisín as a bridesmaid’s dress for my auntie Siobhán’s wedding. It was bought in 2008 in Cosmopolitan Brides in Liffey Valley.” Inspired by Bridgerton on Netflix, Power reworked the dress’s neckline, adding the sleeves and incorporating the slit, all for €80. “It felt like a very special dress to wear for my debs considering the history of the dress. It was very sentimental to me, my mum and auntie Siobhán.”
The red carpet, typically a haven for box-fresh, straight off-the-runway gowns, has recently embraced vintage too. Brand new is now new-to-you, and celebrities looking for a unique take on current trends are looking back on archives. The latest Dolce & Gabbana show curated by Kim Kardashian dug into their fashion library, showcasing an 85-piece show of archival-inspired looks. On the red carpet stars such as Zendaya, Bella Hadid and Jennifer Aniston have revived vintage ensembles. “This old thing” is now desirable and coveted, including when it comes to debs wear.
For Amira Elbharaoui (18) and Valerie O’Leary (19), shopping vintage via shops, online marketplaces, and peer-to-peer resale sites like Depop and eBay ensures they’ll find one-of-a-kind pieces and avoid same-dress drama. “I wanted something different,” says O’Leary. “My older sister had a vintage dress for her debs in 2019 and I loved its uniqueness. I figured since I only get one debs, I should try and stand out.”
Shopping preloved also comes with eco-friendly credentials, of course. “I think it’s so important to shop sustainably for this big event because the number of people every year who buy dresses for one night that then get thrown out or never worn again is crazy,” says Elbharaoui.
O’Leary, who made her debs this year in a vintage dress sourced in Miss Daisy Blue in Cork, echoes the sustainability sentiment. “I always buy vintage or second-hand from Depop, and when I go out, I tend to re-wear dresses. I wanted to step it up for my debs, I figured why not opt for the more sustainable choice and go vintage. I was glad to give this dress a second life.”
With a wardrobe made up of 1990s preloved pieces from charity shops to items from her granny’s wardrobe, a vintage debs dress was also a natural choice for Elbharoui. “I knew I wanted a vintage dress that was elegant and with the 90s feel,” she says. Inspired by films including Ten Things I Hate About You and How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, Elbahroui researched vintage brands she liked that fitted the 1990s aesthetic, and found her dream dress from a Depop seller on Facebook.
“I fell in love with an embellished beaded dress and bought it for £30! I know I’m saving my parents a couple hundred, since I heard girls budgeting for €300 on a dress they’ll wear once.” She’s not making her debs until 2023 but Elbharoui invested early, as shopping sustainable is a slower process. “I wanted to get a dress sourced sustainably and cheap and prove it is doable. I also hope to up cycle the dress into a mini dress for nights out, or keep it to pass on,” she says.