Hats and Horses
At racecourses, the show takes place both in the stands and on the racetrack. Let’s take a look at some of the most prestigious racecourses.
Every year, on the first weekend of June, people wearing feather fascinators, extravagant hats, bright-coloured dresses, top hats and elegant tail coats rush to the stands of the Epsom Downs Racecourse in Britain. The members of British high society get together for the Epsom Derby, the most prestigious equestrian flat race and one of the most popular events of the season.
Since racecourses have existed in their modern form, that is to say since the first half of the 19 th century in Britain and France, they have been the venue of high-society meetings and have been witness to celebrities attempting to outdo each other’s elegance: the clothes we wear are more important than the horse on which we bet. Besides, Epsom Derby’s organisers have published a guide for neophytes who do not know what to wear. Supreme subtleness: the rules depend on the stand. In the Queen’s Stand, for example, women have to wear a hat or fascinator and fancy dress is forbidden, as well as jeans, sportswear and trainers. Even children have to be “smartly” dressed. In the Grandstand, the rules are less strict: jeans are allowed, but they must not be torn or ripped. In the other stands, ties and hats are simply recommended.
Synonymous with a major elegant and social race, the Derby has been exported all over the world. As a result, on the first Saturday of May, the high society of the American Deep South (obligated to follow seasonal codes), gathers in the Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. Whether in the Millionaire Row or the clubhouse, the women have to look like “Southern Belles”, typical elegant young women from the southern United States. They wear spring dresses or pastel-coloured ensembles that are perfectly matched with their hats and accessories.
Marketing and local sensibilitiesThe Victoria Derby Day Race at the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne in Australia stands out because of its strict dress code: attendees have to be dressed in black and white. This tradition is said to have less to do with prestigious origins than with a marketing plan. In 1960, the woman who wore the most original black and white outfit received a prize, sponsored by the whisky brand Black and White by James Buchanan and Co. But according to another version, the colour combination was inspired by the film My Fair Lady.
It is not a Derby; it is a very recent competition, but it nonetheless enjoys international renown today. The Dubai World Cup, first held in 1996, is now the most lucrative race in the world, with 10 million dollars in prize money for the winner. Since 2010, it has been held at the Meydan Racecourse, a huge sports complex at the base of the Jueirah Meydan hotel. In this way, spectators can watch the show from their suite. A guide published for the event explains that attendees have to be dressed stylishly, but without “offending local sensibilities”. Men should wear a tailored two-piece and tie. Women should wear an elegant dress or skirt with chic accessories, while “retaining modesty”: i.e. below the knee and with the midriff and neckline covered. See-through materials should be avoided. The only extravagance is the hat: every crazy idea is accepted. At the end of the day, the Jaguar Style Stakes awards prizes to the Best Dressed Woman and Man.
No eccentric fascinators at the Palio in Siena, Italy: there is no space. This 90-second horse race, held twice a year, in July and August, is unlike any other. The track winds its way through the narrow streets of the old city of Siena, where big crowds gather. Recalling medieval rivalries between families, the race brings together ten riders, each dressed in the colours of the ten districts of the city. The jockeys ride bareback and are furiously jeered and challenged by the crowd, to the extent that it is not unusual for them to be thrown off their horses at overly sharp turns. Something else that makes this race unique: corruption. From the jockey to the departure time, everything can be bought and sold. This tradition dates back to the origins of the competition, in the Middle Ages.