Rule: Win at the races by following the dress code

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm

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.

Gen Theobald won 'Fashions in the Field' at the Donacaster in this dress code-tastic ensemble.

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.)

Sarah Wynter working perfect vintage chic (with covered shoulders)

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.

  1. All good, except the shoulder pad/sleeves on the grey thing at the end. It looks like pelmets.

  2. thanks so much for feather vs flower distinction, spring vs summer,
    I was aware of fabric vs straw, why do so many get it wrong?
    Oh the elegance and style of covered shoulders, how many shop assistants insist on shoving sleeveless dresses at me insisting the arms are great. If they overstock sleeveless maybe feedback to designers or more discerning buying we shoulder coverers will buy & stores will sell, win win

  3. Gai Waterhouse is a style legend. She always looks amazing… and your article is so timely – and not just for the races, either – how about a whole series on why we don’t need to see cleavage, belly buttons, tattoos or shoulders in the office!!!

  4. spot on about Gai, she’s a marvel! Another one to watch is Emma Freedman…

  5. Hi Maggie, Loved the post. I’m about to help out some fashion students with Fashions on the Field entries and have forwarded it to them as a reference. I hate to be a pedant (here comes the but) but, did you realise that Gai Waterhouse’s hat in the first pic. though perfect in style, colour and decoration, is a straw ? Doesn’t really change the great impact of the picture & article though.
    Happily yours, Felicity

    • EEK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you’re right!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn’t see it so clearly on the computer and with the feathers I thought it was one of those fabric ones – like the sunhats with the wired canvas? Thanks so much, going to put a note at the end. x

  6. Oh yes please, Maggie, your take on the Rules for office attire!

    Gosh, I remember trying to stay within a very strict dress code: stockings or tights (no bare legs, no trousers), long sleeves or short sleeves (bare arms only acceptable on breathlessly hot days), dresses or skirts at or below the knee. Every now and then someone would bend the rules (my friend with great legs wore a smart suit with a very short skirt which she bought in Paris, and she got away with it beautifully.)

    I’m quite shocked by what passes as office attire these days!

    • Very interesting – what business was the office involved with? My godmother was a magazine editor in London in the 1950s and 60s and they had to wear gloves and a hat to work!

      • This was when I worked in a Melbourne law firm, ultra-conservative in the 1980s. Women in trousers were frowned upon because there was a perception that a female lawyer could not appear in court wearing trousers (the judge could not “see” you). One year the female Articled Clerks at my firm were so outraged by this rule, they all wore trousers on the day they had their group photo taken.

      • That is great. I think there is balance somewhere in the middle. If I were paying $$$ for legal advice I would want someone looking pretty sharp to talk to. It’s all part of the service, isn’t it?

  7. Fabulous tips Maggie, should be required reading for all those racing wannabes (if only they took heed!). I am already planning my Spring Racing outfits for the 2011 Melbourne Cup Carnival (a girl can never start too early). It is the one time of year that being attired in gloves and a hat doesn’t garner odd looks on the train. Not that stops me anyway….

  8. Gloves – oh goodie!I am merrily plotting which darling little pair of my Nanna’s original but imaculate (some still with the Mark Foys price tag on) leather gloves I will wear to Doncaster Day. Hope she has a handbag to match.

  9. I love Gai. She is quite the personality and there is really no one else like her in the Australian racing industry. She wears some AMAZING outfits and her personal style is most definitely her own. I remember a leather jacket and knee high boot combination to die for. I wish I could have stolen them right off her back!

    However, she also has some SPECTACULAR fails too. There have been days where “who spewed on Gai” has echoed around the track! There was one outfit which I think was a suit… but it sort of looked like a white tracksuit covered in fluorescent paint splashes. God awful.

    Admittedly, since her association with a certain large department store and the coming of age of young Kate, her style has most certainly improved… but maybe that’s because I’m not at the races nearly as often as I used to be and therefore not as exposed to her daily stylings?

    Regardless, thank you for writing this article, Maggie. I have seen plenty of good, bad and ugly racing outfits. The most appalling was a day out at Canberra racetrack on Melbourne Cup day a few years back. Unfortunately, many of the girls forgot that they would actually be seen in daylight – “Honey bunch, you’re not at ‘Mooseheads’. I can see what you’re wearing!!”

    I just wish I could frock up and put some real effort into creating the perfect racing attire. But sadly I will be missing Doncaster Day (and Golden Slipper – my fave! I love the 2 year olds and the roar of the Rosehill crowd is phenomenal) and will only make it to the Sydney Cup where I will be decked out in RM Williams boots, slacks and a smart shirt as I spend time behind the scenes with the ponies.

  10. “But if that all seems too hard” Maggie I think you nailed the problem with that line alone. Very few people want to put in the effort with dressing any-more. If it seems too hard they simply won’t do it.
    Racing dressing is one of the (last) “big occassion” dressing opportunities that many people get, apart from weddings and so many people clearly don’t know how to “occassion” dress anymore.

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