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The Ascot races start this week and are among the world’s most prestigious race meetings. More than half a million visitors attend every year and a massive £5.5 million in prize money will be given out.
There is a long history of horse racing on the grounds at Ascot and it’s always had a royal association. King James I began the family tradition in the 16th century, becoming a huge supporter of horse races and equestrian sports. In 1711 Queen Anne was out riding near her home in Windsor Castle when she came upon an area of heath. She claimed it was “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch.” Over the next few years she held a series of equestrian events on the site, which is the site of today’s Ascot race course.
The Royal Ascot event as we know it was born in the 18th century. For the first few years, a simple four-day Royal Meeting took place on the grounds once a year. It included a series of races and events but it lacked the wide appeal and glamour that we associate with the event today. In 1807 the Gold Cup race was introduced, beginning the transition to the shorter races and larger crowds that we are familiar with. To this day, the Gold Cup remains the centrepiece of the Ascot races.
In 1922 a Times journalist commented that Ascot was “notoriously the best place in England to see beautiful women in beautiful clothes.” Since the very beginning, Ascot has been synonymous with high fashion and elaborate couture, and hats and fine millinery have always been a key part of the dress code.
In the 19th century the Prince Regent and his friend Beau Brummell cemented Ascot’s place in high fashion culture, insisting that respectable and elegant men must wear waisted black coats and white cravats with pantaloons when attending the races. As the years passed, this stylish look developed into the popular frock coat.
Queen Victoria on a horse in a top hat in 1838
As the fashions at the horse race began to gain in importance, some men began to adapt the look of the riding coat, known as a Newmarket coat, to make it suitable for formal attire. Eventually, this led to the appearance of what we now refer to as a morning coat.
By the early 20th century Ascot had become a confirmed fashion fixture and much of the focus was on headwear. For both men and women, the races became a chance to flaunt fabulous hats.
During the early days of the races, hats were obligatory dress at all formal occasions. As the fashion for hat wearing began to fade throughout most of society, Ascot’s dress code continued to maintain high standards.
Edwardian women enjoying the races
The prestigious, invitation only Royal Enclosure set the tone for the entire event with strict codes of conduct and dress. Proper headwear has always been an essential part of the formal attire required to gain entry.
Christys’ & Co Ltd have been manufacturing fine hats in England since 1773 and have supplied thousands of pieces to Ascot attendees, including Sir Winston Churchill. Over the last 250 years they have seen a range of fashions and trends. “Through the late 18th and 19th Centuries, the requirement was to conform,” says Managing Director Steve Clarke. That meant wearing conventional styles and shapes of headwear. As fashion developed, there were a few unexpected changes to the traditional race attire. “In 1797 John Heatherington was put in jail for wearing one of the first top hats in public – and scaring women and children!”
But fashion progress couldn’t be halted, and key design houses led the innovations. “Many milliners of the time innovated in production techniques and tweaked the stiff styles of the era – our catalogues for example are full of subtle variations on the top hat and bowler hat themes.”
Outlandish & Extravagant
Image courtesy of Margaretrr / iStock Photo
Not all hats at Ascot follow the elegant traditional style. In fact, when it comes to fashion, the race has also become renowned for the extravagant and extraordinary. Spotting the most outlandish headpiece has now become something of a tradition.
Image courtesy of Featureflash / Shutterstock
Throughout the second half of the 20th century milliner David Shilling made a name for himself by creating over the top headpieces for his mother. For 30 years she set the tone for eccentric style with designs including the Eiffel Tower or a giraffe’s head. Shilling’s own top hat was often similarly adorned with wild decorations.
“Fashion is changing more swiftly nowadays – due both to global influences and speed of image communication,” says Steve Clarke. Nevertheless, a black or grey top hat is still required for men who are invited to enter the Royal Enclosure, while women must wear a headpiece.
Top hat and panama styles from Christys’
So what hat style should you pick? “Black fur melusine taller top hat for men and floppy brimmed panama for ladies,” says Clarke. “We are seeing increased confidence across the board so wider styles, more confident shapes, colours and texture.” He encourages everyone to give wearing a hat a go. “There is a hat for everyone. The right hat can lend you confidence, allure, mystique, protection and can really amplify your personality.”
Have you been to Ascot? We would love to hear some of your memories or see your pictures of the extravagant fashions on display!
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