On the track, horse racing is a sport in which men and women compete on an even footing like few other sporting events. The gender of a jockey couldn’t be less important to the outcome of a horse race, which isn’t always true in other sports such as tennis or rowing.
Off the track, though, there isn’t quite the same level of equality, where it is actually the women that are superior. Although women were allowed to attend racecourse almost as soon as men were, the rules for them in terms of fashion became different quite quickly.
The racecourse has long been a place for women to show off their latest fashions, with Ascot Racecourse giving women either free entry or a heavily discounted one on entry. This lead to the notion of Ladies’ Day, where the women would turn up in their finest outfits, treating it as more of a fashion show than a race meeting.
What happened at Ascot soon moved elsewhere, in horse racing terms at least, which is why most race meetings up and down the country continue to have a Ladies’ Day nearly 200 years after the phrase first appeared in print.
The Origins Of Ladies’ Day
The first every horse races at Ascot were held in 1711, but at the time there was no real limit to what people could or couldn’t wear. In 1807, a friend of King George IV, Beau Brummell, decided that men should wear black coats and white cravats and pantaloons.
Though the fashion of men was strictly limited, women were still given no suggestion about what they should wear. That didn’t really change until the 1830s, when Queen Victoria turned up to the racecourse with a headpiece that managed to obscure her face from fellow racegoers.
From that moment on, hats at Royal Ascot became almost de rigeur. The Royal Family dictated what racegoers would and wouldn’t wear to such an extent that the majority in attendance in 1910 wore black, which was in accordance with what the rest of the family were wearing as they mourned the loss of King Edward VII.
That Queen Anne was the driving force behind the original Ascot meeting meant that women were involved in the sport from the outset, with the Royals being an important part of that. In the years that followed this developed even more.
The Royal Family turned up with horse carriages and extravagant outfits, which led to a poem describing ‘women, like angels’ who ‘look sweetly divine’. Women were given free or discounted tickets for Ascot on the third day of the meeting, which became known as Ladies’ Day for that very reason.
Though the discount based on gender no longer exists, the desire to impress others most certainly does. The Royal Ascot website makes reference to the day, saying, “Fashion and glamour reach their zenith and designer creations and millinery masterpieces take centre stage.”
Interestingly, though, the phrase ‘Ladies’ Day’ is not officially recognised by Royal Ascot or Ascot Racecourse. To officially call day three of the meeting ‘Ladies’ Day’ would, they say, pull focus away from the horse racing. That isn’t to say that there is a snobbishness around it and all involved readily accept that that is how it is colloquially referred to.
A-listers and members of the Royal Family regularly attend Ladies’ Day, giving it a sense of prestige as well as the feeling that it is something to which people can, and should, aspire to be a part of.
Though Ladies’ Day is difficult to get tickets for, as with the rest of the Royal Ascot meeting, most race meetings up and down the country promise a Ladies’ Day of their own.
The day at Aintree Racecourse, for example, which takes place during Grand National week, is just as well-competed over by the women in attendance. There is a need to impress others, so the level of fashion on display is high. Similar things happen during the Cheltenham Festival, where Ladies’ Day remains one of the most popular of all of the days that you can buy tickets for.
Hats At The Races
Alongside the very notion of watching races, horse racing meetings were a chance for the wealthy and affluent to show off their taste and their wealth, often through expensive millinery. From the moment that Queen Victoria turned up wearing a porter bonnet, hats have been all but compulsory during the week of Royal Ascot.
Though hats were obligatory for formal fashion during the early part of the 20th century, they continued to be an important part of attire at Ascot long after that ceased to be the case. They are even mandatory within Royal Enclosures for some meetings at Ascot.
Of course, the original purpose of Queen Victoria’s hat was to hide her face from the public, yet the opposite is often true nowadays. Ladies wearing hats chose to opt for more and more outrageous and outlandish designs.
Indeed, the hats often gain as much attention from the press and the public as the racing that the audience theoretically turned up to watch in the first place. In fact up until Queen Elizabeth died in 2022 one of the most popular betting markets for Ascot was what colour hat she would wear.
Despite the fact that horse racing is no longer the elite sport that it once was, horse racing meetings remain one of the only places where people can wear extravagant hats or well-designed fascinators, which is why the remain popular.
Racecourse Fashion Over The Years
Racecourse fashion has always moved to keep up with the times. Though rules are strictly enforced, you will often find that racecourse actually offer a chance to see fashion at its cutting edge. This was especially true for French couturiers, who would use the events of race meetings as an opportunity to present their work to a wider public.
New collections were often presented behind the closed doors of high society, but the emergence of the middle class with more disposable income meant that designers needed to cater to a different audience.
As a result, racecourse would be used as the first catwalk, with models turning up wearing outfits that were daring and flamboyant. They were designed to catch the attention of the crowd, giving designers a chance to spread the word about the styles and fashions and to better understand the requirements of their new clientele.
In the 18th century, ‘lingerie’ dresses of lace, ruffles and ribbons were popular, often consisting of whites and pastels. By the late 19th century, this had developed to the S-silhouette, created thanks to the ‘mono-bosom’ corset, with some ladies wearing undergarments that offered a slim figure.
In the early part of the 20th century, voluminous gatherings and ruffles were the key outfit choices. This later became dominated by flat embroidery with lace and ribbons. Though the dresses themselves could be worn at less formal events, racing presented the opportunity to adorn them with elaborate accessories, such as long gloves and the aforementioned hats.
From the very first Royal Ascot, the fashion on offer has presented a mix of the traditional and the eccentric. It has adapted and evolved over the years, offering the rest of the country something of a barometer for the fashion of the time.
Though there were always certain expectations in terms of what people would wear, it wasn’t until 2012 that Ascot Racecourse introduced a formal style guide that racegoers were expected to follow. The Royal Enclosure and the Queen Anne Enclosure had specific codes that had to be followed, with the strictest rules enforced there. Women’s hemlines can fall to just above the knee or lower, whilst straps on tops and dresses must be one inch wide at least.
Bardot necklines, which tend to be off-the-shoulder, have been banned since 2018, whilst hats are mandatory and strict rules apply to the base size.
Though Royal Ascot is something of the standard bearer in terms of fashion and the links to women at the races, all courses welcome female racegoers. The problem is, knowing that you’ve been allowed to wear trousers since the 1970s and jumpsuits since 2017 doesn’t necessarily mean that women know the tricks of surviving a day at the races.
Indeed, Royal Ascot tends to take place during the summer, so following the fashion from then wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea if you were off to the Cheltenham Festival in March.
At most racecourse, Ladies’ Day is the place to be when a meeting rolls around. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to freeze to death in order to impress, though. There is nothing wrong with wearing a fashionable coat when the weather turns, for example. Equally, fans of Dragon’s Den will no doubt recognise Heel Stoppers, which can be put on the bottom of high heels in order to stop them from sinking into the grass.
Just because you want to win the prize on offer for the best dressed lady doesn’t mean that you can’t walk comfortably during the day.