A History of Dresses at the Races

For more than a hundred years the races have given women the opportunity to show off their most beautiful dresses and impressive hats and fascinators. Trends have changed but many of the traditions remain the same, especially within the most famous and formal racing arenas like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. But where did these traditions come from and why is dressing your best such an important part of a day at the races?

An Early Catwalk

Before the days of fashion shows, the races were an excellent place to show off your best clothes to the wider public. According to the European Fashion Heritage Association journal, ‘the tracks were used as ‘catwalk-avant-la-lettre’ by ladies and fashion designers alike.

history of dresses at races 01 deauville racecourse 1913
Ladies fashion at Deauville racecourse in France 1913 (Source: European Fashion Heritage Association)

Horse races were a golden opportunity for society women to spot and don fashionable outfits, whilst couturiers despatched dressed in their latest creations’. In 1922 The Times said that the Ascot races were deemed ‘the best place in England to see beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes’. Due to the fact that the races were, and still are, so prestigious and often linked to the Royal Family, showing respect by wearing one’s best clothes was a very important part of attending.

The Importance of Ascot

Though the first races were held in Ascot in 1711, it wasn’t until 1807 that a dress code was first implemented by Beau Brummell, a close friend of future King George IV, who decided that men were required to wear black coats with white cravats and pantaloons. However, he made no suggestions for women who were allowed to dress more freely until a little later when Queen Victoria made hats de rigueur after wearing a porter bonnet (a headpiece that shielded the face from observers) to Ascot in the 1830s. The royal influence on Ascot was such that when the Royal Family were in mourning for King Edward VII in 1910, all the guests wore black.

Though the rules of what to wear to Ascot have been clear to those in the know for decades, it was only in 2012 that organisers of the event released a formal style guide for racegoers. For women, the rules include that women’s hemlines must fall just above the knee or lower and that straps on dresses and tops must be at least one inch wide. The rules aren’t getting any looser with time either: in 2018, off the shoulder necklines were banned. Due to its longevity and royal associations, Ascot is at the forefront of racing fashion, and its influence rubs off on all the other meetings.

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John Charles Jacquard Print Dress with below the knee hemline and wide straps.

Racing Fashion through the Ages

Despite having some strict rules, racecourse fashion always keeps up with the times, and is often at the cutting edge. Rupert Wesson, academy director at British etiquette authority Debrett’s told CNN “institutions such as Ascot… have gradually evolved their dress codes over the years to reflect changes in society and fashion. However, they have been careful to do so in ways that do not detract from the sense of occasion. There is still a need to dress up!”

One of the ways that women’s fashion at the races has kept up with the times is through the introduction of trouser suits and jumpsuits. Trouser suits were formally allowed into Royal Ascot enclosures in the 1970s and jumpsuits as of 2017. The ever-evolving nature of fashion and the endless creative ways that people choose to interpret it means that racing dress codes need to be flexible, or risk being seen as outdated.

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John Charles Printed Crepe Jumpsuit in Noir. Perfect for the Royal Enclosure.

A History of Hats

At the beginning of the 20th century, hats were an obligatory part of formal attire, but this fell out of favour during the latter half of the century. However, the races have maintained the tradition of wearing hats, and they are mandatory at some meets, especially within the Royal Enclosures. Since Queen Victoria sported her porter bonnet many years ago, hats worn to the races have become increasingly outlandish and extravagant, and now create as much interest at the races as the horse racing itself.

During the early parts of its history, horse racing was a sport of the wealthy and affluent, and large hats allowed people to show off their wealth and taste through expensive millinery. Though horse racing is no longer an elite sport, the opportunity for people to wear wonderful hats and fascinators barely exists anymore, making wearing them at the races a truly special occasion, and a tradition well worth preserving.

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Ispirato Teardrop Shaped Fascinator in Misty Pearl/Maraschino

Putting on a beautiful dress or jumpsuit and a big hat is something we don’t do often, apart from when attending a wedding. Having the opportunity to don our finest clothes is one we rarely have nowadays, so we should honour tradition by dressing our best when going to the races.