Note: this is a hemisphere-specific Rule, written to coincide with the start of the autumn racing season in Australia, but I could just have well have written it – with the appropriate dress code rules – for the UK summer races. People who wear bare midriffs to Ascot are really missing the point…
Sure you can go to the autumn racing carnival in a brightly-coloured strappy summer cocktail dress, open sandals and a straw hat. No one’s going to stop you, but it’s so much more fun to go looking truly fabulous within the quaintly old-fashioned ‘correct’ dress code.
Why? Because it shows you can work the system and still win – in the dress stakes, if not the equine ones. That’s another conversation entirely and not one you want to have with me. (‘Ooh, look! “It Bag”, what fun and the jockey’s wearing purple with yellow spots, that’s my favourite! I’ll have $20 on that to win, oops, hic, make that $50…’)
So what is the dress code for autumn racing? The key is all in the word ‘autumn’. Which is why, starting with the key part of your outfit: it’s a felt or fabric hat, never a straw*. No flowers on it – feathers are the thing. Moving down, covered shoulders. Gloves. A closed shoe.
Whether you wear stockings with them or not is your choice. I believe it is deemed ‘correct’ to do so, but that’s one rule that I will never follow until the day deep snow is forecast for Randwick/Flemington. Hateful leg-suffocating waist-strangulating man-made fibre torture chambers.
(I always thought the time Princess Diana famously didn’t wear hose in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, in what passes for high summer in England, was one of her great charitable acts. The British establishment was so shocked it made the front pages of the newspapers the next day. ‘Nude Princess Leg Shock!’. What a precedent she set.)
But while I think bare legs are fine, bare shoulders, not so much. This is one of the few occasions when the female armpit, lovely as it may be, should not be available to public view.
You can still wear your gorgeous sleeveless dress – and I think a fitted shift is one of the nicest things to wear to the races – just make it one with a matching, or complementary, jacket, bolero, or cloth coat. No, a pashmina doesn’t count. Or if it still feels too warm for layers, autumn or not, a fitted dress with little cap sleeves is very chic.
And if it all sounds very old fashioned, that’s the whole point. You really feel you’re going somewhere when you’re rigged out ready to go on set for an office scene in the first series of Madmen.
As well as putting a feather in my hat (autumn, remember?), it makes me want to put some pearls around my neck and a brooch on my lapel. All the better to hang my entry passes from. And to carry a structured bag I can hang over my arm Margaret Thatcher style. All the better to put those annoying leather or suede gloves in, after I’ve made the point of wearing the bloody things.
But if that all seems too hard, in comparison with getting dressed for the spring carnival in a gorgeous bright frock and a flowery hat, do what we’re all supposed to do before hitting the track: study the form. And there is no better form to study for race wear than Gai Waterhouse.
All those early mornings and she is never less than the perfectly attired for the season and the meeting. With perfectly judged serious jewellery. She’s even sussed out how to make a hat work with specs on.
* Thanks very much to Felicity Boevink for pointing out in the comments, that in the pic above – also used as the hero picture at the top of the post – Gai is wearing a STRAW hat, which is a massive fox paw for the autumn races. Oops.
I couldn’t see it clearly enough and thought it was made of that wired fabric that is used for bendy sunhats – and the pheasant feathers convinced me it must be an autumn hat. So sorry for breaking my own rule in the picture, but I’m leaving it as I still think the outfit is glorious.
I really want that frock.