The tradition of dressing up for major horse races is steeped in history. If you’re familiar with the idea, you probably have a certain image in mind regarding what people tend to wear: extravagant hats, gaudy accessories, and fun-but-formal attire. Generally speaking, this is an accurate image. Yet you’ll find that from race to race and in different parts of the world, the traditions have evolved to suit different occasions. So here we’re looking at some of the big ones that demonstrate the delightfully fun scope of horse racing fashion.
A Stately Affair at The Royal Ascot
There’s a certain fanciness to horse racing culture, and the Royal Ascot takes it to another level. The spectacular Ascot Racecourse, with its beautiful grandstand and flat tracks, is actually open to races throughout the season, from May to October. But it’s in June that the Royal Ascot event takes place, attracting some of the most impressive horses in Europe and an audience that typically includes members of the British royal family (among other celebrities and fashion icons).
To match the general grandeur of the event, the Royal Ascot has a formal dress code that is strictly enforced, with requirements and rules that mean turning people away if they don’t comply. This dress code varies somewhat from one seating area to the next, but generally, women are required to wear day dresses and hats (without showing bare shoulders or the midsection). The men have to have top hats and morning dress suits – which for those who aren’t familiar means three-piece ensembles complete with tails. People still tend to be very creative within these rules, and as you can imagine this produces sensational looks year in and year out.
A Rousing Good Time at The Cheltenham Festival
The Cheltenham Festival offers a bit more of a casual atmosphere, and with it some different twists on fashion. From can atmospheric perspective, the event really earns the name “festival.” Each day has a theme, there’s a Guinness-sponsored drinking pavilion on site, and many will take multiple days off of work to enjoy the four days of races. Additionally, while the UK’s free online betting options have made horse race wagering in general more accessible than ever before, Cheltenham seems to place a particular emphasis on the activity. This only adds to the general buzz of festivity, with spectators not just interested, but often invested in the races.
As you might imagine, all of this leads to a slightly less formal take on horse race fashion. There isn’t a formal dress code, and some of the outfits you see wouldn’t be allowed at the Ascot. That’s not to say fashion isn’t an important component of the Cheltenham Festival though. The event’s “Ladies Day” is designated specifically for people to dress up a bit more, and above all else you’ll see some outerwear twists on general traditions. Given that these races take place every March in England, the weather can be a bit cold and wet, so it’s not uncommon to see some gorgeous coats and jackets supplementing traditional looks. The weather also allows people to have fun with some accessories you don’t always find at races, such as scarves, gloves, and boots. And rest assured, you’ll still see some extravagant hats!
Pure Fun Stateside At The Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby is pure fun – a lively event held every May at the beautiful Churchill Downs racecourse. It’s actually much like the Royal Ascot in that it’s a race for three-year-old thoroughbreds – though it’s also a more intimate event, typically welcoming some 150,000 attendees compared to 300,000 at the Ascot (over five days). As racegoers enjoy mint juleps and Kentucky burgoo with merriment (drinks and dishes people even replicate at home as they watch on TV), they also enjoy the chance to celebrate with their style choices.
The fashion at Churchill Downs generally errs on the formal side, although choices can be more expressive or unique than stately. Hats are stacked with objects and feathers that can rightly be described as zany, particularly by contrast too the elegant fascinators the Duchess of Cambridge wears to Ascot. Female spectators are allowed to show their shoulders, too, which is a virtual necessity given that May temperatures in Kentucky can approach 90 degrees! Overall, the fashion for this race is more of a creative outlet than a standard of expectation. it may be the best total representation of what people tend to envision when it comes to horse racing fashion.
Attending a proper race day is exciting, no matter which one you choose. From the stately ensembles of the Royal Ascot, to the semi-casual winter style at the Cheltenham Festival, to the eccentric choices at the Kentucky Derby, there’s always fun to be had with your race day wardrobe.