Caitlin McBride: 'There's more to fashion diplomacy with Ireland than simply wearing green'
It should go without saying that there is more to honouring Ireland than wearing green and drinking pints of Guinness.
And yet, that is the default strategy for so many visitors, especially high profile ones. Over the last 12 months in particular, the British royal family have been on a full-court press of soft diplomacy in order to continue positive Anglo-Irish relations, which makes the obvious omission of the well-dressed duchesses wearing anything Irish-designed at specifically Irish events all the more perplexing.
On Wednesday night, Prince Charles and Camilla celebrated at early St Patrick’s Day dinner with Simon Coveney, and London-based stars like Dara O Briain and Kenneth Branagh. Charles spoke a few words As Gaeilge and vowed to visit all 32 counties - overall, it was well received affair. Camilla, future British queen consort, arrived at the event in a breathtaking green kaftan, a delicately embroidered piece which was gifted to her by the King of Morocco in 2011 during a state visit to the country and a decidedly odd choice for a distinctly Irish event.
The dress was undeniably beautiful and the shade of green a refreshing departure from her usual attire, but it was a missed opportunity for an obvious win by wearing something designed by someone with even tenuous Irish connections. The politics of fashion, in particular with royals, is a delicate one: they need to master high/low dressing while promoting homegrown designers, sprinkled with the right amount of tribute to whichever nation they’re honouring.
Last month, Kate Middleton and Prince William visited Northern Ireland in a surprise two-day trip and despite four different outfit changes, there wasn’t so much as an accessory by a designer based in Belfast or beyond, just a new Missoni dress in a shade of mint. On the island of Ireland, there is a talent pool recognised on a national and global scale, with increasing popularity - in the last year alone, Paula Rowan’s leather gloves appeared in British Vogue and Helen Cody and Laura Jayne Halton’s work both graced the Oscars red carpet last month.
Philip Treacy, the London-based milliner from Galway is the only creative who has successfully cracked the upper echelons of the British royal family. Hatmaker Margaret O’Connor from Ennis, previously worked with Treacy, helping create looks for Princess Beatrice and Zara Tindall at Kate and William’s wedding in 2011 and is full of praise for the British royals, but is hopeful for some Irish consideration in their wardrobes.
“I lived in London for 7-8 years and the Prince’s Trust really supported me. I studied in Kensington and Chelsea, I got my millinery papers there and I feel my career started in the UK,” she explained. “I think they should use Irish designers, but they probably don’t know enough about them. I think there’s scope to open up the window to new talent and it would a nice union. Maybe it’s up to the Irish embassy to schedule a visit with some designers making moves so they can look at their work, or should it be up to designers? We need someone to help designers connect with these people for potential opportunities.”
Every year, the Duchess of Cambridge honours the Irish Guards on St Patrick’s Day and every year, she is impeccably dressed in themed attire - like her Alexander McQueen tartan coat dress or Jane Taylor pillbox hat - but hasn’t dipped her toe into the Irish design pool for the event, and there is a unique opportunity for such next weekend.
In 2018, when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry visited Dublin on a two-day visit, she resorted to the same simplistic tactics employed by her in-laws, wearing forest green as she touched down at Dublin Airport to pose for the waiting press. Her white gown by Kerryman Don O’Neill’s THEIA line during a state dinner in Tonga last October is widely regarded as one of her best ever looks, so the evidence supports the fact that taking a risk with a lesser known brand can pay off in spades.
With the closure of Orla Kiely’s business, a Dubliner whose work often hung up in Kate and her mother Carole’s wardrobes, there is a vacancy for another mid-range brand to appeal to their accessible tendencies. Cathy Martin, Belfast-based style guru and businesswoman, said it was a missed opportunity for the royal to show off her fashion stripes.
“I’d love to see them wearing Irish and it would be a great aim for St Patrick’s Day depending on their engagements. Maybe we just need someone at embassy level to send some options over, although I’m not sure that’s how their styling works,” she said. “I believe both duchesses choose their own clothes with minimal styling. Personally, I would love to see Meghan’s bump draped in a beautiful Grecian-style dress by Una Rodden.”