For the past few years, the most closely fought rivalry at Ascot racecourse pitted toffs against tarts, with good taste appearing to fade in the stretch. This week, however, primness has pulled in front to win by a (well-covered) head.
Alarmed that its reputation for elegance and ravishing headgear was losing out to a reputation for fake tan, false eyelashes and fistfights, the world’s most famous racetrack has instituted a new dress code. At this week’s 301 st Royal Ascot meeting, where the racing-mad Queen watches top thoroughbreds compete, there will be no bare midriffs or uncovered heads. Very small skirts are verboten, but very large hats are the done thing.
What remains unspoken, but is still understood by everyone attending, is the underlying issue of class tension. At today’s Ascot, barmaids mingle with baronesses, with the implication that one of them needs to learn how to dress, and act, like a princess.
“Ladies are encouraged to dress in a manner as befits a formal occasion,” according to the racecourse’s new rules for the Royal Enclosure, the most august area of the track.
The regulations come with the kind of precise measurements more commonly associated with nuclear engineering. Dress straps must be at least one inch wide. Hats need a base of four inches. Men are expected to wear morning suits and top hats in the Royal Enclosure. Shorts, it goes without saying, should be left at home.
In all areas of the track, women must wear some form of hat, and strapless dresses are forbidden. So as the race meeting began on Tuesday, dozens of Ascot fashion police stood by the entrance gates armed with wicker baskets full of fascinators and pashminas, which they gave to the immodestly dressed.
But most people among the crowd of 40,000 had heard about the new rules, and welcomed them. “It was getting quite sloppy,” said Ruth Blake, who comes to the racetrack every year with her family, and had diligently covered both head and shoulders. Her daughter, Lorraine, wearing a custom-made union-flag dress and a red picture hat in honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, added: “Some ladies looked like they were ready for the beach at St. Tropez or a night club instead of Ascot.”
The underlying issue is one of social class, which no one wants to mention because Britain believes all that is firmly buried in the past. While the racetrack still lives up to its lofty reputation from My Fair Lady – “ev’ry duke and earl and peer is here” – it has also become popular with regular folk, as have other previously elite sporting events such as the Henley Regatta and the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.
The tensions are felt not just at Ascot, which is set in the countryside an hour’s train ride south of London. The Earl of March, who owns bucolic Goodwood racecourse, said in 2007, “We have far too many chavs, I’m afraid.” (Chav is a derogatory British expression for a tackily dressed member of the working class.) In April of this year, a Liverpool policemen got in trouble for calling female racegoers at Aintree “tramps” who abused fake tan and fed their children pork scratchings.
Last year, a huge brawl broke out at Ascot, with racegoers hurling chairs and attacking each other with champagne bottles. (Nearly 60,000 bottles of champagne were consumed at Royal Ascot in 2011, and 110,000 glasses of Pimm’s.) In 2006, a fight erupted over the last bottle of rosé Laurent-Perrier, with combatants using champagne flutes as weapons. At that five-day race meeting, 28 people were arrested.
Clearly the racetrack is hoping that propriety in dress will inspire propriety in behaviour. “Things were getting out of hand,” said Gail Thorne, who was drinking a $130 bottle of champagne with two friends, and wearing a magnificent pink, feathered headdress that she’d had made for Ascot. “I’m hoping we’ll have a bit more elegance now.”
While five-inch heels were still in favour at this year’s Royal Ascot, there appeared to be fewer skirts of that length. Some people even tore their eyes from the fashion show long enough to watch the racing.
Shortly after the Queen and Prince Philip arrived this week in a horse-drawn landau, Beverley Humes and her friend, Adelaide Allen, gathered at the rail to watch the European champion Frankel gallop away from the competition for his 11 th straight win.
They both welcomed the new dress code. “Society’s getting so casual that it’s good to have something to dress up for,” said Ms. Humes, whose daughter had made her red, white and blue fascinator. “And besides,” said Ms. Allen, “no one wants to see our midriffs.”