How to win Best Dressed at the Dublin Horse Show
Over 600 women are expected to throw their hat in the ring for the Best Dressed Lady competition at the Dublin Horse Show on Thursday. Style experts and previous winners what it takes to win the coveted prize
If you’re not in, you can’t win. That’s the rules of Ladies’ Day at the Dublin Horse Show, where would-be winners have to throw their hat in the ring to be considered by the judges.
The format is unlike other best dressed competitions where roving judges circulate the course searching for the most stylish attendees, many of whom have secured prime positions that offer maximum visibility.
Instead, entrants are asked to register by filling in a form that details their outfit choice and posing for a photograph that will later be examined by the judges. False modesty need not apply.
As best dressed competitions go, the Dublin Horse Show is by far the most diplomatic. The prize is also among the most lucrative. This year the prize package, sponsored by Dundrum Town Centre, is valued at €10,000.
There are also prizes for Most Colourful Outfit, Most Creative Hat and Best Dressed Man.
Emir Irwin O'Shea won Best Dressed lady at the Dublin Horse Show in 2009
More than 600 visitors put themselves forward for the competition last year. That number is expected to rise this year, as is the standard.
“Every year the standard gets higher,” explains stylist and horseracing fashion commentator, Marietta Doran. “The bar is raised year in, year out.”
Individuality and ingenuity are the watchwords. Winning outfits are big and bold. They embrace experimentalism while nodding to the season’s trends.
“My eyes will be peeled for a standout outfit that hums with originality,” says judge and Irish Indpenedent fashion editor Bairbre Power. Fellow judge Pippa O’Connor says she’ll be on the lookout for colour and “someone who is comfortable and confident in what they’re wearing”.
So how does one fashion an outfit that is guaranteed to stand out among a sea of feathers and fascinators? Last year’s winner, milliner Carol Kennelly, advises entrants to wear the work of emerging Irish designers.
“There’s a great sense of satisfaction in going to an event and knowing you’re the only one with that outfit,” she says. “And it really isn’t that much more expensive when you compare it to some highstreet brands.”
Carol’s winning outfit — a structured long-sleeve peplum top and feathered pencil skirt — was by Killorglin fashion designer Tina Griffin.
“I saw the outfit at Kerry Fashion Week and fell in love,” she recalls. “I made the hat two days beforehand. The dress was doing so much talking so I kept the hat small.”
Carol seems to know exactly what kind of headpieces attract the judges’ attention — another one of her designs won the Most Creative Hat prize in the competition in 2012.
Her winning outfit last year cost in the region of €1,000: skirt €370, top €225, shoes €70 and bag €50, both by Aldo. The hat sells for €350 from her online store (carolkennellymillinery.com).
However, the cost of an outfit has little to no bearing on its appeal with the judges. The runner-up last year, public relations consultant Lisa Regan, was wearing a shirt dress that she picked up for €15 in a vintage sale.
Carol adds that she won a €12,000 prize in the Best Dressed Lady competition at the Galway Races in 2008 with an investment of just €200.
“I bought the feathers for the hat from a local fishing tackle shop and used the nylon from a pair of tights. It was an arts and crafts project.”
The success of her homemade creation at Galway, and another one at the Listowel Races the year before, prompted Kennelly to carve out a career in millinery. She went on to train with Lina Stein and today her headpieces are worn by stylish racegoers all over the country.
Emir O’Shea, who won the Best Dressed Lady competition at the Dublin Horse Show in 2009, also wore the creations of two Killorglin fashion designers, both of them her sisters.
Her sibling Clodagh Irwin Owens designed the jumpsuit she wore while her other sister, Niamh Stack, dreamt up the oversized hat. “Those two have got the fashion gene — I just like wearing it,” she laughs.
“Jumpsuits are in fashion now but at the time you wouldn’t have come across many of them,” she adds. “A lot of heads turned that day, whether they liked it or not.
“I had just had my second child and I was on a high. Now I don’t think I could ever wear something like that again. It’s all about the individual and where they are at the time.”
It’s a confidence game, adds Emir, whose style has won her a number of prizes in best dressed competitions around the country. “If someone is wearing something they are unsure of, then it’s going to show.” Bairbre agrees. “You’re wearing the outfit, not the other way around.”
A hat or headpiece is vital, says Marietta. Women who aren’t wearing one are overlooked when she’s on the judging panel of a best dressed competition.
Marietta’s favourite homegrown milliners are Mark T Burke (“one to watch”); Brid O’Driscoll (“so quirky”) and Laura Kinsella, whose work has been championed by none other than Lady Gaga.
Should certain hat shapes and styles be avoided? Galway-based milliner Edel Ramberg says there are no hard and fast rules. “People always assume there are strict rules when it comes to hats, like if you are a small woman, don’t wear a big hat. Yes, that does apply to an extent but you really do need to try on as many shapes as possible,” she says.
“Often ladies come to my studio with a small little hat in mind and end up leaving with the biggest. It’s about being comfortable in your piece and getting a little bit more confidence when you wear it.”
However, she notes that wide-brimmed hats should be tilted slightly to sit between the width of your shoulders and the colour of the hat should match the complexion. “Don’t wear a hat that will drain the colour from your face just because it matches your nude shoes,” she adds.
Edel likes understated elegance. “I think simple dresses and fedoras work perfectly if you are going to watch the horses, but if you are hoping to enter the best dressed competition, you could look at Dior for style inspiration, especially older images from when women’s outfits were always immaculate.”
Often women can focus too much on the hat and forget about other accessories. “I’ve seen dreadful shoes that let down the whole outfit,” says Marietta. “You have to tick all the boxes — that’s how detailed the judging is.”
Grooming is another consideration. Emir follows the less-is-more philosophy. “Some women can go too far,” she says. “They look chocolate brown in the middle of an Irish climate.”
Marietta agrees, and advises women to heed the tan commandments: “Use a mitt, moisturise, avoid the heels because [false tan] tends to catch there and use face and body make-up to even it out.”
If you’re competing for the first time on Thursday, remember that you’ll be interviewed on stage. “Everyone else gets to look on from below and hear the story of your outfit,” explains Carol. “It makes the day interesting, but it can be a little nerve-wracking.”
A photograph is also taken. “This gives the judges an insight into how you’re going to look in print the next day,” adds Carol. “So smile and suck everything in! Make sure your shoes aren’t scuffed and your hemline is even.”
It can be unnerving if you make it to the final 10. “You stand around while they literally scan you up and down,” explains Emir.
“I always try to chat to the person standing next to me so that I don’t feel so awkward, but some women don’t open their mouths as they know they are being judged.”
It will be no cakewalk for Thursday’s winner. However, with a prize pool of €10,000 on offer, the competition can only be rife.
The Dundrum Town Centre registration desk will be located on the Band Lawn inside the RDS show grounds; dublinhorseshow.com.
Style Stakes: Judge Bairbre Power's tips
* Let your personality shine through in the outfit.
* Be true to your own sense of style.
* Embrace colour.
* Go for comfort and don’t suffer for your fashion because it’s going to be a long day.
* Don’t be a slave to just one colour — mix it up but put the brakes on over-accessorising.
* Don’t wear a ballgown — it is an afternoon event!
* Above all, enjoy the day out and the fashion camaraderie that abounds.