Dress to depress: Why we make a bags of it at balls

Devalera, like a malevolent ball-watcher, is in the sky ensuring you dance appropriately

Maybe it’s not Maybelline and maybe she actually was born with it, or near enough as like: there’s something funny afoot in the Irish psyche when an invite to a black tie event drops on the welcome mat.You know, a stiff card missive summoning you to a laugh-a-minute nurses and guards ball, or the like.

The bizarre Irish inability to garb oneself for formal social occasions without looking like a lumpy Quality Street has been noted before. We’ve come a long way since we were dancing for Dev’s delight at the crossroads clad in sackcloth and muslin, wearing red-cheeked smiles of simple delight.

Irish women are now quite stylish and that. We’ve got drapery shops that don’t have yellow cellophane covering the windows and which do contain up-to-the-minute fashion items. We can buy non-censored frequently published ladies journals to tell us how to put them together in eye-pleasing ways. There are even, I believe, things called style and beauty weblogs out there on the webternet to help with any fashion and cosmetic queries we may have. I wouldn’t know much about that aspect myself.

But something happens when we’re invited to a black tie ball or awards night. Synapses flare, hormones surge and odd things happen in our thalamus. All sense of normal reason and carefully-cultivated style go out the window. If you normally shop in Zara and Cos and off-kilter high fashion choices and doing it differently are your thing, you can bet your ass your immediate thought when the big ball invite arrives is “aha! Julian in the Stephen’s Green Centre will be just the ticket! I can really see myself in a slashed-to-the-navel puce satin number with rhinestone detailing, accessorised with a terrifying amount of blusher, fake tan and an eye-wateringly tight up-do.”

And y’know, I think I have an inkling as to just why this might be.


Hard-coded into our pasty DNA round about age 17 is the vital information that dinner dances – or ‘dos, as your parents would call them – must be prepared for with vast acres of neon satin and litre bottles of vile smelling fence paint masquerading as fake tan. It’s why normally sartorially superb adult Irish women suddenly appear in jewel-toned, satin-draped phalanxes at weddings like Liverpudlians do when Aintree rocks around. We can’t help ourselves, God love us. It’s what was bate into us as teenagers and the mental block is there for keeps.

So the good news is we’re not responsible for this sense-based leave-taking. Nope. It’s not our fault that the EU Satin Surplus (there is one, I’ve checked) is plundered each wedding and awards season. Nor can we really be held accountable for the diminution of the European Fake Tan Lake, which is, of course, lapping happily in – wait for it – St. Tropez.

No: this all happened to us before the age of consent, and so we can’t be taken remotely to task. To Coast with us for a rummage through the racks of taffeta, ruffles and unsuitable strapless numbers in shades designed expressly to clash with Celtic skin and hair so. Straight to the local beauty salon for a full-body spray tan – shade darkest ebony – to be conducted wearing naught but a pair of paper knickers and scarlet flaming embarrassment.

Because we will go to the formal event. And it will be a balls.

(by Kirstie McDermott)

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18 thoughts on “Dress to depress: Why we make a bags of it at balls

  1. Glamazon says:

    So true 🙂 Shiny evening dress (whether the invite says black tie or not), leopard print tan, platform shoes, Itsy and Bitsy style eyelashes and a couple of hair extensions – the Identikit Wedding ensemble du jour.

  2. I think my Debs dress was so horrifying that rather than locking me into a mental model of appropriate evening wear it put me off shiny furbelows for life. It was a sort of puce taffeta number from Laura Ashley with ruched sleeves. I looked like an Austrian blind.

    Of course, that didn’t stop me wearing it again to the Trinity Ball the following year…

  3. kirstiemcd says:

    Ruched sleeves! The very height of style!

    • Patrick Freyne says:

      Great piece Kirstie. Here’s a real conversation I had in the run up to my Debs:

      Me: I haven’t got a suit for the debs yet.
      Classmate: The only thing I’ll need to wear… is this (dramatically takes condom from pocket)
      Me: Aren’t you taking your cousin?
      Classmate: So?

      For some reason amongst my small group of nerds the Debs was mythologised as a mystical land where sex might happen. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

      • Bwahahahahahahahaha! Oh God. Also, that conjures up a marvellous image of your classmate showing up at some young one’s door proffering a limp orchid/box of Milk Tray and wearing nothing but a prophylactic…

        (“I’m here for Margaret, Mrs Sheridan. Has she her hair done yet? Who are you phoning? Is that a squad car?”)

      • kirstiemcd says:

        On his part, that was a conversation worthy of Cardinal Brady
        “Back then, we didn’t know it was wrong to go to the Debs and try to coerce our underage first cousins into having sex with us”

  4. My dress and these were INDISTINGUISHABLE.

    Except I probably looked a bit less like a window.

  5. fústar says:

    We had no debs as a previous year had “done the dog on it”. Also, our (all boys’) school took a dim view of anything that might potentially be fun. Or anything that might allow us to channel our sexualities in ways that might challenge the prevailing mood of homoerotic tension.

  6. Kitty Catastrophe says:

    That photo of Dev overseeing the crossroads dancers is TOO MUCH! Brillo post Kirstie.

  7. Anna Carey says:

    Bucking the national trend, I actually had a vaguely goth debs dress which I bought from Sé Sí Progressive (as was) in Temple Bar. It was a black empire-line muslin frock with black ribbons that wound around the sleeves. My friends and I all wore black in various forms, but far from being goths, we were all typical 1993 indie kids whose usual attire was floral skirts, band t-shirts, old-man-style cardigans and Docs – I don’t know why we were so gloomily dressed on Debs night, maybe because we were being forced to go to Tamango’s (Where The Gang Goes) in Portmarnock for the big night. And I wore my gothy garb, of course, with brown-ish matte lipstick and lots of mascara – it was the early 90s, after all.

    • Kitty Catastrophe says:

      LOVE it Anna. I think we’ve had this conversation before on Twitter, but my Debs dress was goth too. I wore it the next year to my then-boyfriend’s Debs with purple hair and homemade wings. No satin or fake tan for me! I probably looked mental.

      • Anna Carey says:

        Ha, I once wore mine with black wings and loads of glitter when I went to a fancy dress party in college as a bad fairy. My friend H had wings too and a random boy asked what we were dressed as. H said “Well, I suppose I’m a fairy and she’s the fairy who didn’t get invited to the christening” and he looked at me in confusion and said, “What, were you not invited?” We just sighed and made our escape.

    • I can confirm that said frock was actually rather nice!

      To redeem myself, I will point out that subsequent to the Laura Ashley curtain, I attended formal events in a rather nice 1930s vintage frock (which I wouldn’t fit into now, and also stood on) and an entirely ridiculous also-semi-gothy black number with ostrich feathers, which acquired an entire new lease of life in later years as “something to wear to Powderbubble”.

    • kirstie McDermott says:

      I had a goth dress too, and a whiter-than-white face with divil a bit of blusher. All pictures have been burnt.

      • Anna Carey says:

        I thought there were no photos of mine until just before I got married when my so-called chums presented me with a hideous image of me on Debs night in my friend Louise’s house, shortly before we all headed out to Tomango’s. My make-up was even worse than I remembered. The horror…

  8. nlgbbbblth says:

    We had no debs either. A couple of years previously the head prefect had been killed in a car crash a few hours before the event – caused by speeding; he had been rushing to collect his suit before the shop shut. In an extraordinarily kneejerk reaction our principal banned ’em. The class of 1988 had a bootleg debs which had five rebel teachers in attendance while we (the boys of 1989) had a half-hearted reunion in a shitty New Ross pub about nine months after the Leaving, On a positive note I got a “blind invite” to the Mercy Convent debs. No mystical land of sex there either.

  9. Jo says:

    I think we had the first debs of our school – our creepy headmaster who later was accused of harrassing students in my year allowed us one on the provision that we referred to it as ‘the Leaver’s Ball’. Uh huh.

    I dropped my pint on my black velvet dress and then a waitress dropped a tray of veg soup that splashed onto it. Amusing.

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