Substance takes a back seat as presidential candidates plan to emulate Mary's style

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The Independent Online
Behind the contest between four women candidates for the Irish Presidency an equally-intense battle is in prospect between Dublin's dress designers.

Widely-admired clothes helped define the new elegance, colour and gravitas Mary Robinson , pictured, brought to the post. Clothes also echoed the Robinson message. Soft lilacs, purple or mossy-greens accentuated a fresh determination to take a once-stuffy Presidency out to ordinary people with a sympathetic message.

Robinson couture made her favourite designer, Dublin's Louise Kennedy, nationally-known, starting with a stunning amethyst-purple tailored silk- moire jacket for her 1990 inauguration. It was particularly memorable as she was surrounded there by a sartorial legacy of the old order, an entirely elderly male political establishment in grey suits.

As would-be successors set out their stalls last week, matching that style legacy was clearly going to be important. Fianna Fail's Mary McAleese appeared after her nomination in a neatly-tailored regal black suit with a pale gold silk blouse and pearls.

The favourite, anti-nuclear campaigner Adi Roche, appeared in an arresting lemon two-piece, then in a long dark outfit and characteristic quirky ear-rings, suggesting a youthful radical edge over older rivals.

Fine Gael's Mary Banotti's official photo saw her in immaculate dark jacket with distinguished top-stitching and gleaming white blouse with a more glamorous deep neck-line than normal for the office. Dana was less flamboyant, in a plain bright blazer and staid ankle-length flowery dress.

Such stylistic emphasis may seem superficial, but in the last poll a key turning-point was Mrs Robinson's "makeover", turning a frumpy barrister, hair blowing to the winds, into a vision of career-woman smartness, sporting designer specs and newly-discovered legs. Mrs Robinson, first female head of state in a country still to produce a woman premier, drew curious interest over how differently she would appear from male predecessors.

Irish elections have long seen US-influenced personality advertising. The recent election hinged on a powerful poster-image of Bertie Ahern, now Taoiseach, as the epitome of concern above the slogan "People before politics".