From the heels and hats of the Dubai World Cup to the WAG-style perma-tans of the Grand National, racing fashion always offers bright colour, daring millinery and a bevy of beauties ready to pose for those cameras. But they all owe their popularity to one long-established occasion, one of the world's most prestigious race meetings: Royal Ascot.
Royal Ascot is not only the most celebrated meeting on the British racing calendar - and popular in the Gulf among those who follow the fortunes of the thoroughbreds owned by members of the royal families. It is also synonymous in the sporting and social world with fashion and style, which often obscures the fact that it offers some of the finest racing to be found anywhere in the world. Without Ascot, the chiffons and feathers of the Dubai World Cup would be a lot less extravagant, and the milliners of Melbourne, for whom the Melbourne Cup is bread and butter, might well find themselves out of business.
In attendance this year, looking elegant in top hats and morning dress, were Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai (whose wife Princess Haya donned some fine millinery for the occasion), Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance. The meeting, traditionally attended by Queen Elizabeth ll, ended yesterday. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the historic racecourse founded by Queen Anne in 1711
The event's unique dress etiquette and celebration of millinery is fundamental to the identity of Royal Ascot. To mark its 300-year history, that other quintessentially British institution, Vivienne Westwood, was invited to present her vision of Ascot's heritage. The grand dame of British fashion, who in her early days was better known for tearing up the rule books than for sticking to them, demonstrated her knowledge and passion for fashion history in a series of outfits that encapsulate and celebrate the different eras of the Royal Meeting. Nowadays, she says she regards rules as "a challenge rather than a hindrance". In collaboration with the influential milliner Stephen Jones, Westwood's couture designs range from a Victorian-era Charles Frederick Worth-inspired dyed silk taffeta gown worn with a "poker" bonnet, to a glamorous black and white 1920s-style coat worn with a tulle veil. There is a red 1940s-style guipure lace suit that would look elegant on the grass lawns of Ascot today and a glamorous black and white gown and quilled hat that pay homage to the Edwardian splendour of Cecil Beaton's designs in 1954 for the celebrated black-and-white Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. (Beaton had been inspired by the famous "Black Ascot" of 1910, held a month after the death of Edward VII, one of Ascot's greatest royal patrons. The Daily Mirror described the striking monochrome scene: "The occupants of the Royal Enclosure were in black… save for where ladies wore white flowers or had strings of pearls as the only ornament.")
Looking back through the archives it is clear that some traditions are deeply embedded in history and one of them is the time ladies would spend planning the finery that they parade on Ascot's famous lawns. In the 1860s, Consuela, Duchess of Marlborough, wrote that she found Ascot week "very tiring… fortunes were yearly spent on dresses selected as appropriate to a graduated scale of elegance which reached its climax on Thursday; for fashion decreed that one should reserve one's most sumptuous toilette for the Gold Cup day".
In Queen Anne's day, fashion was much influenced by the royal court of Louis XIV at Versailles, with big Watteau necklines and wide pannier skirts, but it was Queen Anne's maid of honour, Miss Forester, who caused a furore by wearing a man's riding habit. The early Georgian kings were not particularly interested in horses and racing but that didn't stop Georgiana, the sartorially adventurous Duchess of Devonshire, arriving at Ascot, 60 or so years after Queen Anne, with her hair piled high with a galleon, stuffed birds or some such magnificent head apparel perched on top.
Even today there is a side of Ascot that attracts the truly outlandish hats beloved of newspaper editors, Louis Mariette's Marie Antoinette headpiece on the opening this year being a case in point (see Oasis, page 6). Another example was the late Mrs Shilling who, for 30 years, preened and posed for the cameras wearing elaborate hats designed by her son, the milliner David Shilling, including such wonders as the Eiffel Tower or a giraffe's head. The former royal milliner Freddie Fox is often quoted as attributing hat wearing's survival to "royal patronage and the institution of race meetings".
From the early crinolines to the infamous hot pants in the 1970s, it is not surprising that over the centuries the fashions have attracted as much comment as the horses. In 1922 The Times correspondent wrote that "Ascot is notoriously the best place in England to see beautiful women in beautiful clothes."
The British fashion designer Amanda Wakeley says in her foreword to James Sherwood's new book Fashion at Royal Ascot (Thames & Hudson), "I attended my first Royal Meeting in my 20s and because of my passion for fashion, I made a point of researching the dos and don'ts of the Royal Enclosure. In those days, the rules of engagement were definitely stricter: no trouser suits, no open-toe shoes and you had to wear tights or stockings. Those rules have relaxed slightly and I don't consider that a bad thing." However, she likes the fact that the rules have been laid down by the court and that "this quintessentially British occasion has not allowed standards to slip."
Traditionally, those wishing for Royal Enclosure badges must be recommended by those who have been members for at least four years and the badges can only be acquired by writing to Her Majesty's Representative at the Ascot Authority.
The dress code is imposed for the Royal Enclosure but is largely endorsed by all racegoers at the Royal Meeting. Women wear hats and dresses and all men are required to wear suits. It is a code that influences a number of other meetings on the UK racing calendar with many, from the Cheltenham Gold Cup to the Hennessy Gold Cup, introducing a Ladies Day. The Grand National has become a favourite among the WAGs, with fake tans and maxi-dresses that are more suited to summer in Ibiza than Aintree in April. The Derby in early June, however, is always stylishly attended and this year the new Duchess of Cambridge demonstrated that it is as perfectly possible to look elegant in high street as it is in couture.
The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were always beautifully turned out for Royal Ascot. In recent years, however, it is in the Queen's style that fashion critics have noted a new elegance. On the opening day this year she was in a gently refreshing mint-coloured coat and matching hat, subtly setting the tone for fashion at Ascot in its 300th year. Expect soft petals to be de rigueur at the rest of the season's meetings.