It’s a unique time capsule that gives us a snapshot of women’s history through fashion.
The gowns of some of the 59 winners of the Rose of Tralee will go on display this weekend at Kerry County Museum in Tralee. The exhibition charts the changing styles in the dresses worn by the winning Roses over the past six decades.
Dresses worn by Roses in the early days of the competition were mostly homemade, but the advent of television meant some of the world’s leading designers and fashion houses were keen to sponsor dresses for the festival.
In 1968, Rose Eileen Slattery from Clare wore the flared, short hemlines of the 1960s, whereas 1974 Rose Maggie Flaherty’s stripy number highlights the more outlandish mode of the 1970s.
The 1991 Cork Rose, Denise Murphy, set a trend with her two-piece to allow the skirt be removed for her Irish dancing piece. This was designed by Cork designer Ernest Perryman who, according to Denise, “thought it was quite unladylike for any lady to lift up her dress to do her party piece”.
The 1980s Roses follow the fashion more associated with Princess Diana or Dynasty — puffball skirts and puffy sleeves — while a decade later the fashion turns to straight lines and a tighter fit.
The 40-strong exhibition will be the biggest so far. “We are putting in a big effort this week for the 60th anniversary,” said Helen O’Carroll, museum curator. “A Rose of Tralee’s dress is very significant. Not only can many people recall a Rose’s name but also what dress she wore for her television interview.
“In the words of 1989 Rose of Tralee Sinead Boyle: ‘When people recall me winning they say, you said a poem and wore that beautiful green dress’,” said Ms O’Carroll, as she and her team put the finishing touches to the exhibition which opens tomorrow.
Classic black, cream, and white are the most popular options for Roses, but despite a wide range of colour, there is one notable exception. “The absence of pink has surprised us,” said Ms O’Carroll.
One contribution reveals that the weather in August remained unpredictable. Ann Foley, the 1967 Rose from Birmingham, talks about how she made her dress and cape. “I wore long silver evening gloves which were expected to be worn with sleeveless gowns then, and silver backless sandals with heels. I was very glad of my cape as the weather was wet and stormy much of the time.”
The 2007 winner, New York Rose Lisa Murtagh, reveals how much the dress means to the winning Rose: “Regarding my dress, I would say simply that with the exception of my wedding dress, no other article of clothing that I own means more to me or signifies greater achievement and sheer joy.”
The exhibition will be opened by Celia Holman Lee tomorrow evening at Ashe St and runs for three months.