Andrea Smith recalls her innocent debs experience: 'We all wore white to symbolise purity'
It was almost 30 years ago, but I still smile when I think of my debs.
With the excitement and planning that went into it, I might as well have been organising my wedding. Unlike today’s debs, which are frequently held some months after leaving school, ours was on June 27th, 1986, straight after the Leaving Cert. It meant that we had something nice to fantasise about during those dreaded exams, and believe me, it was our favourite topic of conversation.
It also meant that we were still in that twilight zone where the exams were over but the results weren’t out, so nobody had gone off abroad to study or work and we were all still in the dark as to how we would fare. And given that the Leaving is one big race to gain points and win career paths, nobody was pitying (or gloating over) anyone whose dreams had been smashed, or envying those who had won the golden tickets.
I attended an all-girls' Catholic school, St. Paul’s in Greenhills, which counts among its alumni author Sheila O’Flanagan, reality star Kelly Donegan, and journalists Fiona Looney, Laura Bermingham and Vicki Notaro. Laura was in my year, as it happens, and she always looked like a supermodel - even in her kelly green uniform.
Read more: How to find the perfect debs dress
Our debs was organised by the school and was very formal. As it happened, it was the last year that the school was involved, and future classes would go on to organise their own events. We wore white dresses to symbolise purity, so we looked like a horde of mini brides. We were permitted to wear a coloured sash around our waists, and more thought probably went into deciding on that scrap of ribbon than in filling in our CAO forms. I fancied myself as quite the rebel back then, so I chose a black ribbon, which was considered very daring. I also had a few tiny black bows dotted around the dress.
I don’t recall anyone actually buying a debs dress - most people rented, borrowed or had one made, complete with hooped underskirt. I was lucky because my mam was a dressmaker, and many pleasant hours were spent surreptitiously sketching potential designs in the back of my copy - a brilliant way to pass a dreary double economics class. The dress was vitally important, as while today’s debs will have dressed up for many occasions by the time they leave school, we had no sweet 16 parties, pre-debs nights or official Junior Cert discos back then. The debs dress, to most of us, was our first big opportunity since our confirmation to get properly dressed up. No wonder we were living for it.
With no Cocoa Brown to tan us, many of us had sunbed sessions before the debs, and I can recall nipping down to the local gym for a session right after one of my Leaving Cert exams. Most of us had our hair and make up done professionally in local salons, the latter probably for the first time in our lives.
After the dress, the next most important thing was the matter of the guy you were going to bring, and hours on end were delightfully devoted to that topic. Again, attending an all-girls school made this one a bit tricky, as while a couple of girls had boyfriends, most of us didn’t have much of a social life back then, certainly not one that involved boys anyway. Our school fiendishly conspired with the local boys’ school to keep us apart, so we had different start, finish and lunch times.
The vast majority of us were 17, which is younger than today’s debutantes, and we were quite naive and innocent. I’d say most of us were actually pretty pure - my pals and I certainly were. I had kissed a few fellas (God bless the Gaeltacht and boys from Lurgan), and there was the odd bit of confused fumbling along the way, but that was essentially it. Even in the '80s, we were quite repressed, and while there were some girls in the year who were rumoured to have GONE THE WHOLE WAY, most of us were very inexperienced and lived in mortal dread of becoming pregnant.
Inviting someone to the debs was a really big deal, because in the words of Janis Ian, we learned that truth at 17 that love was made for beauty queens. So if you weren't drop-dead gorgeous, weren't in some sort of social club, or didn't have older brothers with friends who could be pressganged into service, you were probably up the Swanee without a paddle.
For those who were really desperate, there was always the very risky option of bringing some class of cousin or relative, but if this was uncovered, you would be disgraced. It was infinitely preferable to embrace your inner mortification and knock on the door of some spotty stranger that you fancied from afar to invite him to be your escort.
One local legend was dumped by his girlfriend prior to the debs, so a friend of mine delightedly swooped in and nabbed him. She regretted it when he spent the evening sulkily ignoring my poor pal, and throwing dagger looks over at his ex and her new man. Another shy friend was fixed up by a girl in her class who was in the scouts, as one scout was keen to be invited because the rest of his gang were going. He stood a foot apart from my pal in the photos with his hands behind his back, boorishly dumped her after the meal was over and spent the night hanging with the aforementioned mates.
Luckily for me, I was in the local church folk group (some rebel, eh?) and I asked a lovely guy there called Chris Keogh. He was a couple of years older and was the perfect escort, charming to my parents and teachers, and courteous and attentive to me.
Twelve girls who lived on my road were in my year at school, and I vividly remember the neighbours going from house to house to see all the style before we left for the formal ceremony. The atmosphere was electric as our escorts arrived bearing their corsages and chocolates, and we headed for the school where crowds had gathered from the surrounding area to check out the glamour. We were bundled into the back of our fathers' Ford Escorts for this - there were no limos back then. Our parents came too, by the way, which was as excruciating as you might imagine.
We were sent to wait in classrooms, and then one by one, the girl’s name was called. Each of the 130 couples had to walk up the red carpet in the middle of the assembly hall, in front of parents, guests and assorted onlookers.
Most of us weren’t used to high heels, and the fear of falling on your face wasn't helped by all of the eyes that were fixed on you. You couldn’t avoid picking up some of the whispered running commentary about how you looked as you walked up on your escort’s arm.
Once you made it safely to the top, the school principal, Sister Mary Clare, presented you with a silver ring and a rose, and you had to introduce your escort to Sister Maria Rosa, head of the order of nuns that ran our school, who had been flown in from the UK for the occasion. Nuns were the real deal back then with their veils and habits and general air of formality, and while we were used to them teaching us, our young escorts seemed morto at encountering this alien species. They may have sported moustaches and mullets, but most were ashen-faced as they shook hands with the sisters. They scuttled off to the side, as we took our places on the stage and critiqued our remaining classmates’ dresses and escorts as they made their way up the hall. Put it this way, the late Joan Rivers was kinder on E's Fashion Police.
Once the formal part was over, it was off to the Green Isle hotel for dinner and dancing, and our parents and teachers went along too. Being underage, none of the girls could have a drink, while most of our escorts lorried enough pints into them to cope with having to make conversation with our fathers. I recall being shocked at the nuns being great fun and throwing themselves into the dancing, and some of our escorts, mine included, twirling them around the floor.
After that, we got on a coach and finally shook off our parents' beady eyes at the post-debs dance in the Olympic ballroom in town. This was where we let our hair down and all the hot action occurred - and there were some sights that night that I can never unsee! It was great fun, and when it was all over at about 6am, some of us headed into Bewleys for breakfast and then straggled home on the 55 bus. Others went to Bray and some went off to the zoo.
I loved my debs, because apart from the glamour, it was the last chance we all had to be together after 13 years of school. I loved my class, Rang Noirin, and some of my best friends are from those days, but communication was tricky as we didn’t have social media or mobile phones back in 1986. There were some girls I never saw again after that night, and the majority only came back into my life in recent years through Facebook.
The debs was a bittersweet occasion, filled with excitement at finally being at the big, much-longed-for pinnacle of our school career, sadness at leaving behind our friends and classmates, and trepidation about the future - all packaged up in a virginal white dress with a rebel black bow.