Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by one of Ireland’s foremost fashion editors. She spoke about her teenage years and the birth of a clothes obsession, raiding her granny’s wardrobe for vintage threads, taking the bus to London and razoring the Topshop tags off her purchases (a pre-EU measure to throw the customs man off the scent).
It sounds a lot like the gestation period of any fashion-fixated teen, except now we’re detagging tops from Woodbury Common, not Oxford Street. It seems as if nothing has changed. Is this a template that we all follow? Discover the joys of clothing at an early age, then let it develop naturally through occasional, light cross-border smuggling?
But, while the measures in which the individual grows to love clothes never changes, society goes through convulsive totterings, from one cultural extreme to another, and often because of the most unexpected catalysts.
In 1995, there was a heatwave. Not the Irish heatwaves that we’re used to, in which there’s three days of fine weather and everyone migrates to the beach purely out of fear that the nice weather will end before the planning permission for the first sandcastle comes through. A proper heatwave – with water rationing and yellow grass and a million lobster-skinned Hibernians hovering around the place with barely any clothes on, displaying tatty bra straps and previously unseen cleavage.
It was this heatwave, the fashion editor proposed, that was the driving force that knocked Ireland headfirst into modernity. Before then, we were prudish about showing our breasts, unaware of the technology of ceramic plates for hair-straighteners and unwilling to let our unique Irishness be subsumed into a European mould.
Before 1995, the bodycon dresses that we see in every town in Ireland on every Saturday night would have been the Church-intervening kind of scandalous. Afterwards, the typical pale-faced colleen was about as visible as a unicorn. That summer was the starting point for a baby boom and, some might argue, the real start of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. We had our first taste of the good life; the heat, the cleavage, the acts that inevitably precede a baby boom. We didn’t want it to end.
Could a heatwave really be the starting point for Modern Ireland? Were these the bra-straps seen around the world? Well, yes.
It’s a perfect storm. A heatwave did change the way that we wear clothes, but it’s was a rare combination of cultural,economic and social factors that accelerated this change, going from zero to couture in less than a decade.
It was the start of a decade of excessive prosperity. It was the decade when the Catholic Church loosened it’s moralising grip on the country. Travel became cheaper. Women began to see what life was like on the other side. We wanted change. We wanted progress. We wanted freedom.
It was then that Dunnes started selling lacy bras. See what I mean? The perfect storm.