The race for fashion supremacy

Christchurch’s Cup and Show Week is drawing ever closer, so we’re taking a look at the racing events from around the world that have influenced it, and helped shape it into the social staple that it is today. From the history of the racing tradition itself, to the origins of dress codes we’re familiar with today, we give you all the information you need to approach this racing season with your head and heels high.

Dubai World Cup

Running annually on the last Saturday in March, this United Arab Emirates-based race has carved out a reputation for itself in recent years as the biggest social and sporting occasion in Dubai’s calendar. The world’s richest race, with a purse of NZD$14 million, the event naturally draws in racing and entertainment elite alike from around the globe.

Attendance of the races is an opulent affair in itself, with ticketing options within the state-of-the-art Meydan Racecourse starting with outdoor grandstand seating available for a modest $230. Access to the exclusive Cigar Suite, which is replete with food and beverage options and prime position over the finish line and Parade Ring, sets guests back $1800
per ticket.

Naturally, the event itself is about so much more than the on-track action. The curtain-raiser event, which has become known as Super Saturday, takes place a couple of weeks before the Cup itself, and has earned itself a reputation as something of a dress rehearsal for the main event, allowing jockeys, trainers, and fashionistas to refine their performance.

The World Cup weekend itself features a televised opening ceremony to rival the Olympics Games, and traditionally closes with a firework display, although 2017’s performance saw the addition of a drone show, with LED-lit drones flying in formation against the night sky. The final drawcard of the event is always the concert, which is headlined by an international star, and is attended exclusively by ticket-holders. This year, there was a 70-minute performance by the elusive Sia, with support from Maddie Ziegler.

As far as the dress code in concerned, Dubai World Cup blends its own rich cultural heritage with European racing tradition to encourage a conservative and refined style of dress for males and females alike. Hemlines are preferred to be of a “modest length” of slightly above the knee or below, and recent years have seen the end of strapless and single-strapped dresses, with rules now requiring them to be a minimum of two inches in width.

The 2017 Style Stakes saw 1940s and ’50s inspired sartorial choices take out the top awards – think fitted, tea-length A-line dresses for the ladies, and linen three-piece suits with straw trilbies for the gentlemen – the epitome of restrained elegance. And the prize for best dressed? In 2016, the male and female winners were both rewarded with a Jaguar F-Type Coupe to use for six months – not bad for a day at the races.

Royal Ascot

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sport of horse-racing as we know it today found its origins in medieval England, when knights returning from the Crusades would challenge the prowess and endurance of their steeds. The spectacle quickly began to draw crowds, and soon transitioned into a more formally arranged event for the entertainment of local gentry. Before long, a betting element emerged, allowing money to change hands between observers and participants.

Horse-racing has long enjoyed a close association with British nobility, with Royal Ascot itself being established by Queen Anne in 1711. The story goes that when out riding her horse, Queen Anne herself happened upon a piece of land she thought would be “an ideal place for horses to gallop at full stretch”. She began holding equestrian events there not long after, which soon evolved into the official race we’re familiar with today.

Even today, royal attendance is guaranteed at Ascot, and seating in the Royal Enclosure, which was established by King George IV in 1822, is restricted to those with noble blood. Due to this long-standing royal connection, and accompanying reputation for class and elegance, Royal Ascot remains one of England’s premier events at which to see and be seen. Every year, the three-day meet hosts 300,000 guests – who can expect to pay over $500 for premium-level entry and access.

The Ascot experience can be enhanced by attending private drinks in the Furlong Club, which offers caviar and smoked salmon, partaking in Pimm’s at the Gazebos, or travelling to the racecourse by way of the Ascot Express, a train chartered from London directly to the grounds.

Dress code regulations are stringent, particularly for ladies – chief among them being a ban on strapless, off-the-shoulder or halter-necked dresses, as well as any garment exposing the midriff. While trouser suits are now welcome, the pieces must be of matching material and colour, and, like jumpsuits, are required to be of full length, that is, to the ankle.

While hats are an iconic part of Ascot attire for both men and women, fascinators are prohibited, and all headwear must have a solid base of at least 10cm in diameter. Within these parameters, however, Ascot millinery has seen a lot of experimentation within recent years, with tradition meeting high-fashion to create some truly avant-garde and, at times, gravity-defying designs. While many women still opt for a conventional hat, unique creations by the likes of Philip Treacy (who designed Princess Beatrice’s iconic Royal Wedding headpiece) are becoming increasingly common sights at the track.

Kentucky Derby

An American cultural institution since its establishment in 1875, the traditions and rules of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby find their heritage in European races.

The Derby’s founder, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., had experienced the racing events of England and France, and, deeply influenced by them, sought to bring their sporting sophistication back to his own shores. While the event, held on the first weekend of May every year in Louisville, Kentucky, in the heart of America’s South, was initially inspired by the culture and refinement of European aristocracy, it has also taken on a unique identity, becoming steeped in Southern traditions of its own.

Hat-wearing is a particularly strong part of the Kentucky Derby tradition, and is thought to stem all the way back to the introduction of the race in the late 1800s. While English and French women of noble blood were used to donning their finery for a day at the races, the notion of dressing up for a sporting event was foreign to high-bred American women, as was the very concept of socialising in a setting that hosted gambling and alcohol. In response, organisers framed the event as an opportunity to showcase their fashion credentials, overcoming guests’ reservations while also making the Derby synonymous with style and elegance.

While times and fashions have moved on considerably since the advent of these horse races, the custom of hat-wearing and formal dress in general have remained, as both a nod to a well-respected tradition and an acknowledgement of the timeless elegance of the style.

The uniquely Southern tradition of drinking mint juleps at the Derby has been around since the races’ advent. The cocktail combines Kentucky bourbon whiskey with mint to both celebrate the state’s most iconic liquor, and help combat the often-oppressive Southern heat. While they’ve always been a feature, the story goes they became a centrepiece after visiting Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, expressed her love of them after sampling them at the track. It’s thought that over 100,000 are served up every year, so if you’re thinking of attending the Derby, a mint julep in hand is a must!

What’s more, in true American style, a huge amount of festivities have sprung up around the race, turning what is known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sport” into a two-week-long festival. One of the older traditions dates back to the 1950s, and, presumably inspired by the debutante culture of the time, sees five young women selected from hundreds of applicants (known as Derby Princesses) to attend social events as representatives  of the Derby. Traditions have also grown to incorporate the largest firework show in North America, a hot air balloon show, and one of the most elaborate street parades in the US.

Melbourne Cup

Run every November at Flemington Racecourse, the Melbourne Cup is perhaps the horse-racing event New Zealanders are most familiar with, with hundreds of Kiwis flocking to the races each year.

The first formal horse race of the time was run on the banks of the Maribyrnong River in 1840, when the city of Melbourne itself was little more than a fledging settlement. As the city
grew, so too did the racing tradition, with the meet locating itself at Flemington and adopting its official name from 1841. As the years passed, the crowds only continued to grow, attracting 100,000 people by 1880, a figure that has held steady over the following 137 years.

While the general admission area at Cup Day today has no official dress code regulations, allowing guests the freedom to wear whatever they feel most comfortable in, that all changes if you wish to enter the Members’ Enclosure, which is governed by strict codes of modesty similar to those seen at Royal Ascot.

Fashion pundits are already making predictions for 2017’s winning looks, hinting that embracing spring with breezy florals and pastels could well be the way to go, especially if paired with a contemporary headpiece. Colour and a sense of fun are very much encouraged, while black and white are best avoided on Melbourne Cup Day itself, as they are the dominant fashion feature of Derby Day, which traditionally takes place on the preceding Saturday.

When British supermodel, Jean Shrimpton, arrived at Flemington in 1965, she caused a sensation by flouting the dress regulations of the era. Previously, all women adhered strictly to traditional rules regarding hemlines and hats, but when Shrimpton made her much-anticipated entrance, she was dressed in a white minidress which ended a shocking five inches above the knee, with no stockings, gloves or hat; a completely outrageous deviation from the norm. Looking back, many now say that this incident and the publicity it received helped Australia to fully embrace 60s fashion, and the high hemlines and boxy cuts that went with it.

Fifty years later, another woman made waves at Flemington, but for entirely different reasons. In 2015, Australian jockey, Michelle Payne, made history by becoming the first female to win the Melbourne Cup in its 155-year history, and only the fourth woman to ever compete.

If you’re planning on spending a day at the races this year, adult tickets range from a budget-friendly $72 for general admission, to $900 for entrance to the Parade Lounge, which puts you in prime viewing position to not only view the Parade Ring, but also rub shoulders with the who’s who of Australian racing and entertainment royalty.

With our own racing events just around the corner, which fashion approach will you be emulating this year? With the refined, traditional elegance of Royal Ascot to draw upon, as well as the vibrant, springtime colour splash of Melbourne Cup, the possibilities are truly endless. With a drink in hand and sunscreen in place, you really can’t go wrong.