Opening in 1711, through the commandment of Queen Ann, the Royal Ascot races are synonymous with British tradition and reflect the history and culture of the isles. And although Ascot is one of the leading racecourses in the United Kingdom, hosting some of the most thoroughbred racehorses and esteemed jockeys, much fascination around the event is due to the fashions debuted.
Undeniably, Ascot contributes to, as well as displaying, leading fashion. It is an event which affirms fashion trends as well as ostracising fashion faux pas. It reflects the evolution of society in terms of its acceptance and conservation of people, mannerisms and concepts. Thus delving into Ascot’s fashion history is a treasure trove of historical understanding.
Although Ascot begun in the early 18th century it was not until a century later that it became recognisable as the event we know today, with the introduction of the Gold Cup, which was amalgamated with the Royal Procession in 1825. This same year it was insisted that men wear black waistcoats and white cravats with pantaloons. It was from this enforcement of Beau Brummell, a friend of the Prince Regent’s, that the frock coat developed and became part of formal wear.
In the 1860s, the Duchess of Marlborough decreed that Ascot week was a ‘very tiring event’ in which yearly fortunes were spent on dresses selected as appropriate to a graduated seal of elegance, which reached its climax on Thursday – which has now become recognised as a pinnacle in the fashion world, ‘Ladies’ Day’.
Nevertheless, the opening of Selfridges Menswear department focussed its advertising around what the fashionable gentleman should wear to Ascot, imploring that this deep rooted fashion conscience of Ascot is habitual to men and women alike.
Up until the 20th century, guests flocked to the racecourse with carriages brimming with champagne and lavish lunches. But the introduction of the motorcar and then the First World War ensured that the races were irrevocably moved to accommodate the times.
A poignant moment, which truly centralised Ascot fashion in British society, as well as history, was the ‘Black Ascot’ of 1910, which mourned the death of King Edward VII and saw the Royal enclosure drenched in a blanket of black finery – with the exception of the women’s white flowers and pearls. The recreation of this memorial scene within ‘My Fair Lady’ further evidences the impact of this fashion statement.
Within the 1920s, women kept the pearls but were also experimenting with shorter hairstyles as well as fur and fitted hats. They also adopted looser and shorter style dresses, reflective of the flapper period.
Post War saw the adoption of a military style with berets and breastplates, as well as smaller garments due to the reduced availability of fabrics. The adorned ‘50s silhouette was also not to be neglected by Ascot fashionistas as they too strove to achieve a clinched in waist, paired with elegant white gloves. Into the ‘60s, hemlines became shorter and flamboyantly bright with the outbreak of colour in the seventies and eighties.
In much the same way, Race fashion of the 1990s was also inspired by British society. Whilst traditionally, the androgynous almost grungy style was antithetical to that of the Races it was still embraced. Princess Diana, with her plethora of tailored suits was undeniably a guiding force.
Today, Royal Ascot remains at the forefront of fashion and intertwines street style as well as haute couture. Fittingly, the fashion of Ascot has come to represent a more liberal society, so much so that in January 2012 an official dress code, rather than a morally assumed one, was unveiled. The Daily Mail even reported that organisers would give out waistcoats and pashminas to the inappropriately dressed. Kristina Rihanoff, a Russian dancer notoriously appearing on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, was embarrassingly covered up by a security guard’s blazer as she waltzed in amongst the social elite in a dress made of Coral betting slips.
Further fashion statements were made this year with the largest hat ever to appear at Ascot, processioned by Anneka Sveneska, a wildlife presenter and conservationist. Towering one foot above her head and cascading to the floor, the headpiece was over 6 foot in height. Featuring velvet stitching and over a hundred red roses, the hat symbolised the 1,400 horse deaths at races since 2007.
Ironically, Sveneska refused to attend Ascot last year owing to discontent of animal welfare, and also states she has never placed a bet or supported racing. However, this year she opted to use her presence to create moral controversy through fashion. Opposing her condemnation of the event, she professes just how powerful the impact of fashion at Ascot truly is.
An outfit at Ascot is not just an outfit, it is a political statement, an assertion of liberation and synonymously a result and contributor to British history. Good job you’ve got a year to contemplate what to wear before the races roll round again!
Words: Steph Ryan
Tags: #Ascot #Fashion #History #Races