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Enough of the safe frocks ladies, let's bring the wow factor back to the races...

TODAY sees the start of the Galway Races, an annual highlight for many people for many reasons.

For the horsey set and the punters it's all about the race track, but for ladies, there's equal glory at stake if they can just catch the eye of anyone judging a best dressed competition, of which there are many over Race Week.

With prizes including five-star holidays, diamonds, shopping vouchers and luxury cosmetics, it pays to dress up.

And not just at the races, because loads of the go-to hotels nearby host similar competitions for best dressed ladies, with equally impressive prizes at stake.



COUTURE

Every year I judge a Best Hat competition at a hotel which is held in such high esteem that it has now almost eclipsed the main honour at Ballybrit.

Why? Because the prize is a couture piece by the grand daddy of magical millinery, Philip Treacy.

It's now so enshrined in the fashion calendar that anyone who's anyone adjourns to the hotel after the races (or even skips the races, and heads straight to the hotel, hair and make-up professionally done to perfection), to see the most stunning headpieces, worn by the most beautiful women in the country.

But a word to judges and stylish ladies alike -- and as a judge, I include myself in this -- we've got to commend those who excel in the style stakes, and not go the obvious route.

Because so far this summer our best dressed ladies have, on the whole, been fairly conservative dressers.

No doubt influenced by Kate Middleton, winners have worked a monochrome palate, and opted for low key accessories and head gear.

But now it's time to get a bit more adventurous. We can't rely on the weather for the feel good factor, so it's even more important for Irish ladies to brighten up and shine.

And it's essential the judges recognise this and commend those who've demonstrated an eye for real style.

As the editor of Social and Personal PJ Gibbons (who's judging Best Dressed at Ballybrit on Ladies' Day along with The Herald's Rosanna Davison), said to me recently, the winning lady reflects the judges' taste, and right now, everyone wants to be seen to prefer a pared-down, elegant look.

Well, as PJ and I agreed, enough of that. We need the wow factor, both on the day (or evening), and in the newspapers the next morning.

And a woman in an LBD, with an understated hat, minimal jewellery and court shoes could really be going anywhere. Galway Races deserves something more.

So can we push the boat out a bit for Ballybrit?

There aren't many occasions left on the Irish social calendar where a woman can really go for it, and there are ways to do it that doesn't involve looking like an explosion in a paint factory.

Look at the stunning digital print outfits that have been at the epicentre of cool dressing these last few seasons and let it be your hero piece. Then pick a colour in the pattern, and work the accessories sensitively.

Or my preference, pick a real statement hat and dress around it.

Milliners like Kerry's Carol Kennelly, Galway girl Edel Ramburg and Dublin's Martha Lynn and Michael Leong could give Philip Treacy a run for his money with eye-catching creations that say the wearer isn't afraid to turn heads. I wore a hat of Michael's -- a bright red flock of birds -- to a race meeting in Paris last month and made it in to the the next day's edition of La Monde.



INSPIRE

This week I want to be dazzled, impressed, inspired.

Former Galway Best Dressed ladies, like florist Ann Marie O'Leary (winner 2010) and Sinead Donnelly (2007, in cream Alice Temperley) have been groundbreaking in their racing style.

Their winning outfits actually inspired women and set new trends.

It's going to be a great week though, and one where fashion has a key role every day, not just on Ladies Day.

Let's make it memorable.