From rockabilly to rock star: how Imelda May became one of Ireland's most interesting style icons

It’s been more than 10 years since Imelda May first came to public prominence.

It wasn’t until her second album Love Tattoo in 2008 that catapulted her to fame, made all the more captivating by her signature rockabilly style, a word she would bring to the forefront with her music and dress. Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock n’ roll, dating back to the US in the 1950s, but this 33-year-old from Dublin’s Liberties was about to spearhead its resurgence.

Every time she performed on stage or hit the red carpet, there was the trademark quiff with blonde streaks, the rest of her hair styled into a low ponytail (and bun for more formal occasions) allowing her hair to make an entrance before her own arrival was registered. There was the endless array of vintage style fit and flare dresses, each bolder and brighter than the last; all the while she was maintaining a down-to-earth image by admitting to shunning high fashion designers in favour of charity shops.

She maintained this style even as her career began to take off internationally: soon, she was performing private gigs for legendary Irish designer Roberto Cavalli and became only the second Irish act to perform at the Grammys in 2010 (following in U2’s footsteps).

But a long-lasting career requires mastering the perfect balancing act between familiarity and enough change to keep fans interested. And the biggest change in her personal life – the end of her marriage to husband of 13 years Darrel Higham in 2015 was the catalyst for her public transformation.

In 2016, Imelda, like many women before her, she washed that man out of her hair when the relationship ended. Gone was the quiff that had supported her for so many years and in was choppy fringe haircut, reflective of the change in sound for her latest album, a break-up themed anthem in which she documented the highs and lows of her impending divorce.

At the Brit Awards that year, she made her first red carpet appearance with her new look – a bespoke black tuxedo, confidently posing and clutching a glitter ‘Dress Like a Woman’ clutch. Her shaggy hair was a delightful antedate to her otherwise tailored ensemble and a sign that she was committed to playing by her own style rules.

Her commitment to suiting would be repeated a number of times over the next two years, most recently at Royal Ascot on Tuesday, allowing her to showcase the quiet confidence that has brought her so much career success.

Among the sea of bright reds, floaty prints, feathered sleeves and delicate headwear, Imelda stood all her own in a bespoke tuxedo by British designer Joshua Kane and a striking wide brim black hat by Victoria Grant, echoing Cara Delevingne’s chic turn in a black suit and top hat as she attended Princess Eugenie’s wedding last October.

While Meghan Markle, Blake Lively and Lady Gaga have embraced the feminine take on this masculine trend over the last 12 months, Imelda was an early adopter.

Her on-stage looks took a sexier turn as she debuted sparkling mini-dress after mini-dress and was pictured in little else than black skinny jeans and leather jacket in her downtime. 

For the The Ireland Funds Annual Winter Ball at The Globe Theatre in London in 2017, she embraced a softer approach in the form of a sleeveless jumpsuit, exuding the same kind of forward-thinking eye for fashion she always had. Months later, the wide leg trousers she debuted that evening would be hard to miss in shops and in celebrity styling.

Part of the joy that comes with watching May’s fashion evolution is the seeming randomness of it: she rarely makes public appearances and when she does, the biggest thrill is the surprise. In a world where every move and outfit is choreographed within an inch of its life, we could use more women like Imelda May.

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