You're the Tops


FOUR weeks ago on this page, we asked readers to nominate their choice for the title of Ireland's Best Dressed Person. The resultant postbag made for interesting reading, given the enormous divergence in opinion it revealed - the range of people proposed ran from Pierce Brosnan to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey by way of Michelle Rocca, Dolores O'Riordan and American ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. The only characteristic shared was a high public profile but otherwise it was impossible to discover any pattern in voting.

Overall winner was Barbara McMahon, presenter of RTE's Head to Toe and therefore someone with a professional interest in being well dressed. Even so, she sounded stunned when first told the news that she'd been chosen by readers of The Irish Times as the best dressed person in this country.

"This'll put terrible pressure on me now," she remarked. "Before I go outside the door, I'll have to think three times - I always thought twice anyway."

Although she insists she's just a jeans and sweater woman when back at home in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, there's no doubt Barbara McMahon takes considerable care of her appearance whatever the circumstances. "I loved clothes, even as a child. I remember when I was a student in Paris, at the Sorbonne in the 1960s, working as an au pair and giving singing lessons to make more money, I starved myself almost for a month just to buy a belt. I still have it - it's a wide brown one with a heavy circular buckle - and whenever I look at the belt, I think of food."

Describing herself as "a terrible hoarder - I've probably got everything going back to my school uniform" - Barbara finds it hard to throw away any of her clothes. In fact, she says even when she has given pieces to friends, she sometimes has to ask for them back again "because I've become so attached". But like most people who are admired for their taste, she tends to choose the same style of clothing time and again.

"There's the ubiquitous black, of course, as well as navy, and I always have some beiges and khaki. I find I'm better in structured clothes rather than anything long and fluttering."

Avoiding rust and mustard ("they just don't do anything for me") she has also tended to shun red until recently. "But I bought a very nice red ribbed cardigan in Bloomingdales a while ago and every time I wear it I get complimented." Trousers feature a lot in her wardrobe, ever since she felt too heavy to wear mini skirts 30 years ago.

Although now a size 10, Barbara used to take 14 until some time after her marriage "and I just felt uncomfortable until I shed the extra weight".

Insisting that she still has to watch her figure, Barbara goes for daily walks when at home, as well as attending a local gym. "I live in the most beautiful part of the world, so when I get back there, I just put on a pair of walking shoes and do a couple of miles a day." Arguing that "good grooming starts from within", she tries to set aside one day for detoxification every fortnight and takes regular supplies of vitamin supplements.

"I think you have to work outwardly so I've taken to skin brushing too. It's done very simply in the morning and when you apply moisturiser afterwards, your skin really does feel like satin. It's the details that often matter most."

Barbara categorises her own style as understated. Her favourite designer in Ireland is Italian born Michelina Stacpoole, a fellow Limerick resident. "She offers international chic in a garment that's 100 per cent Irish," she says of Stacpoole. "They're clothes that allow a woman's personality to come through, the finish is impeccable and because they're in a natural fibre, they move with you." Other Irish names which feature heavily in the McMahon wardrobe include Brid Nihil - "she made me the most beautiful dress for last New Year" - and Louise Kennedy who "meets her market extremely well".

A current favourite among overseas labels is Radar. "It's from Germany but I think you can find it throughout the country here. It's not terribly expensive and the sizes are great because the Irish figure relates so well to the German." Another international name meeting with consistent approval is Armani "and definitely Gucci at the moment".

Asked to name who might be on her own shortlist for the title of Ireland's best dressed person, Barbara proposes Louise O'Loughlin who owns the clothes shop Firenze in Dublin as well as former model Sharon Bacon; Richard Lewis aficionado Monika Murray and art collector Marie Donnelly. The last of these "carries her clothes so well and they really suit her personality". And even though she's simultaneously thrilled and intimidated by her new accolade, Barbara McMahon certainly doesn't consider herself flawless. "I'd say my hands and feet are too big in proportion to my size - I should be a couple of inches taller. I'd love to have small dainty feet." Thankfully for her, foot size was obviously not a criterion when it came to deciding who was Ireland's best dressed person.