Monday 9 December 2019

What does it take to become a best-dressed lady?

Seriously stylish and hotly contested, Leslie Ann Horgan asks five former winners what it takes to become a best-dressed lady

Rachelle Guiry
Rachelle Guiry
Deborah Barrett
Lucy Gillmor
Eimear Flanagan
Catriona Hanley

Leslie Anne Horgan

Stylish ladies across the country got under starter's orders last weekend with the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh. With it comes ladies' days and their associated best-dressed awards – competitions that are often more hard-fought than the action on the track.

For some, ladies' day is just an excuse to dress up and enjoy a relaxed day out; for a dedicated group who travel the race meet 'circuit', it's the focus of months of strategic planning.

"Ladies' days are a very important part of the fabric of Irish racing," says Joanne Burke of Horse Racing Ireland. "Every ladies' day – from the smaller meetings like Ballinrobe and Bellewstown up to the big festivals such as Galway, which is a huge best-dressed extravaganza – attracts racegoers in their droves. The elegance and refinement associated with ladies' days encourages top companies to sponsor the events, with prizes valued at thousands of euro."

With such lucrative awards on offer – the prize at last weekend's Irish Derby was worth almost €20,000 – it's small wonder that for many this is serious business. However, trying too hard can ruin your chances, according to Stacey O'Donnell, head of private shopping at Brown Thomas and one of the best-dressed judges at last weekend's event.

"What the judges will be looking for is the whole outfit, not just a nice dress," she says. "I want to find a look that is elegant and smart. I'd also like to see something that is on trend. For example, florals are big this summer.

"What's most important is that the outfit be representative of the person's own style and that it expresses their personality.

"You don't have to spend a huge amount of money on your outfit to be in with a chance of winning. It's all about the way that an outfit is put together, not what label it is or how much it costs."

So who are the women who have managed to be first past the post on ladies' day? Here, we talk to five former best-dressed ladies about their winning experiences ...

Catriona Hanley, 34

An oncology nurse from Limerick, last weekend she was awarded Most Stylish Lady at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh.

"What a day! It's only just sinking in now. I've always wanted to enter but it's hard to do on your own. Then this year my first cousin decided to have her hen party at the Irish Derby. I actually bought the outfit for the wedding.

I love fashion but I'm not usually a big spender. The jacket was a massive investment. It's by Mary Katrantzou. I'd been eyeing it up in Brown Thomas and finally decided to just splash out. I wanted a plain dress to match and got one from Bastyan. My shoes were Kurt Geiger and they were actually the same as the ones judge Millie Mackintosh was wearing, except hers had a peep-toe. We both had hats by Mark T Burke, too.

I registered online to enter the competition the night before. At the course, we were busy putting on a bet when someone came over and told me I was in the final five. The other contestants seemed well used to being there. I was looking around wondering whether I'd had a winner in the race when they called out my name. I didn't know what to do. The photographers seemed to expect me to be good at posing!"


Deborah Barrett, 29,

works for the Cork Chamber of Commerce. She took home the prize for Most Stylish Lady at last year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

"When they called out my name as best-dressed winner, I was shocked. I had never been to the races before and leaving the house I didn't know what to expect or whether mine was the right kind of outfit. We were just in the door when someone came up to me and asked me to enter the competition. They told me that Coronation Street's Michelle Keegan, who was one of the judges, had spotted me and liked my outfit.

I got my outfit together about two weeks before the races and I didn't spend a fortune on it. The dress was from Miss Daisy Blue, which is a gem of a vintage shop in the English Market in Cork. I bought the hat in Debenhams for about €100, borrowed a necklace from my mum and I'd my own bag and shoes.

I won a five-day trip to Dubai, €1,000 spending money for the duty free there and a diamond ring from Boodles worth €7,000. I was stunned.

My advice to ladies' day entrants would be to dress in what is comfortable, don't overdo it and just be yourself."

Rachelle Guiry, 30,

is a make-up artist specialising in weddings from Newcastle West in Limerick. She won Best Dressed Lady at last year's Galway Race Festival.

"I started putting my outfit together about four months before the Galway races. I fell in love with a baby-blue lace dress from Ted Baker and built the rest around it. The look I was going for was a Grace Kelly, 1950s style. I ordered the bag online and bought my shoes in Limerick. My friend gave me the tip of putting Nurofen pain-relief gel on your feet when you're going to be standing all day.

I sent an outline of my theme to milliner Carol Kennelly in Tralee and she created my pillbox hat with lace and flowers. It was an investment – about €300 – but worth it. In all, I'd say I spent €800-€900 on my outfit.

It was my first time entering ladies' day and it was much more competitive than I had expected.

When Kathryn Thomas announced I'd won, it was pandemonium. The prize included a diamond bracelet worth €8,500, a €1,500 shopping spree for Anthony Ryan's in Galway, €1,000 cash, a weekend away and a big Lancôme hamper."

Lucy Gillmore Murphy, 26,

is a milliner from Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. She won the 2012 Blossom Hill Most Stylish Lady at the Dublin Horse Show.

"I'm a regular racegoer so I've been to plenty of ladies' days. There are a lot of regular competitors who all know each other. Everyone takes the competition seriously but they are very friendly with each other. I'm terrible for getting distracted chatting or betting, but if you are serious about ladies' day there's usually an area you need to spend time in to get seen by the judges.

I have my own millinery company, LGM Hats, so I generally make a bespoke hat to wear. I put a lot of effort in; each hat takes two or three days to make. I'm very last-minute about the rest of the outfit.

Winning is surreal – it's like being a celebrity for five minutes. In May, I won best dressed at the Irish Guineas festival at The Curragh. The prize was a trip to Abu Dhabi. Then, in August, I won at the Dublin Horse Show, where the prize was a trip to New York. I did get some customers contacting me to buy the exact hat that I wore at the Horse Show. It's great to see people in my hats at the races – I really get a kick out of that."

Eimear Flanagan, 30,

is a speech therapist from Naas, Co Kildare. She won the first big ladies' day event of this season, the Land Rover Style Award at Punchestown last month.

"While I make an effort to get dressed up for a fun day out, ladies' day has never really been on my radar. I was chatting with my friends at Punchestown when Roz Purcell, one of the judges, came and asked me to enter the best-dressed competition. I was a bit reluctant but my friends encouraged me. Being put forward means you have to spend a lot of your day away from your friends, which I didn't enjoy.

It was clear I didn't have a clue what to do but the course staff were wonderful. Going up there did feel a bit like a 'lovely girls' competition, but it was great craic.

I think dressing for the races is all about being appropriate. A hat is a must. I'm not a fascinator girl so I ordered my hat from Kennedy & McSharry.

When my name was called out, I just burst out laughing. Winning was very overwhelming. I didn't expect the reaction that I got on social media afterwards. There were a lot of comments about me, both positive and negative, from complete strangers. There were a few along the lines of 'why did she win? That outfit is horrible'. I just laughed them off but if you were to do the competitions all the time you'd need a thick skin."

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