ENGLAND, OUR ENGLAND
If it’s summer in the shires, it must be the sport of kings. And if it’s the sport of kings, the dress code must be raffish eccentricity (ironed shoelaces optional). Originally published in Issue 58 of The Rake, NICK FOULKES charts the long and colourful history of dressing for a day at the races.
The dandy, a silk scarf wound around his top hat and trailing like a pennant in the wind, lolling against a barouche, cigar dangling from his lips, a set of splendid seals hanging from the watch-chain on his snowy waistcoat front, casts a supercilious glance at the ragged, shoeless girl trying to interest him in her wares… while unseen, beneath the carriage wheels, another urchin is reaching out to steal a bottle of champagne. An infant acrobat, lost in dreamy contemplation of the pie and lobster being set out for a picnic lunch, forgets that he is to perform some feat of agility. The thimble rigger is busy practising his art, inviting bystanders to try their luck and find the pea hidden beneath one of the small cups he moves around a small collapsible table, and it seems he has found a victim, as one of the onlookers has a crisp white banknote in his hand. These are just a couple of the characters that people William Powell Frith’s masterpiece, Derby Day. A mid 19th-century scene preserved for ever, locked into the oil paint that covers the vast canvas: Frith achieved with a brush what Dickens managed with a pen. More than just a record of an event, he captures the very spirit of the sport of kings; the sense of occasion, the spectacle and sartorial opportunities offered to students of the turf. Attendance at racecourses and proximity to horseflesh seems to loosen inhibitions and send an invigorating surge of daring, magpie dandyism through the wardrobe. The sartorial pleasure in racing lies in pushing codes to their limits rather than breaking any rules. For English people of a certain generation, the turf is often invoked to suggest a level of exaggerated raffish eccentricity. For instance, when I got married, at the end of the 1980s, I had my then tailor, Stamp of Oxford, copy a morning suit waistcoat made for a Spitfire test pilot in 1938, but in a silk depicting the medieval kings of England; I knew I had got it right when one of the older guests described the waistcoat as rather “horsey”. On another occasion I was wearing a bold checked tweed suit and I was described as looking like a Kelso bookmaker — again, there are those who might not take that as a compliment, but for me it signifies a slightly transgressive flamboyance that teeters on the brink of flashiness… and on the whole I regard that as a good thing. I once considered making a career out of speculating on the speed of quadrupeds over a given length of grass, but nowadays I take the equine element of racing as a pretext for wearing clothes that I would not be able to justify anywhere else (I don’t get asked to Palace garden parties and I am of an age when my friends are getting divorced rather than married, so the races are the only time I get to use my morning coat and black silk top hat).
If you want to know what prolonged exposure to the sport does to your wardrobe, look no further than John McCririck, a racing commentator justly celebrated for a set of Piccadilly weepers that would not disgrace the physiognomy of any Victorian patriarch, a taste for finger ornamentation of which I heartily approve, and a wardrobe that appears to have been assembled by a ‘swell’ circa 1911. To understand the hold that racing has over the imagination (and the wardrobe), we have to look a couple of centuries further back: it was Queen Anne who, after a day’s hunting in 1711, decided that Windsor Forest could do with a racecourse. A patch of open ground was selected, and Ascot was born. Soon, when there was a race at Ascot, fashionable society moved to the most fashionable forest clearing in the world. Arriving in London during Ascot week, the Duke of Bedford complained that he “could find no soul to dine or sup with”. The establishment of the Jockey Club, above a pub, in the mid 1700s gave horse racing at least a semblance of a governing body, and the sport became more exciting as there was a move towards a novel form of racing, whereby a larger number of horses were entered into a race in which the stake of each entrant was pooled to provide an attractive prize. Before then, there was match racing, in which two gentlemen decided to ‘match’ their horses against each over several miles, often in heats. The so-called ‘sweepstakes’ often involved younger horses running at greater speeds over shorter distances. In a world before association football and motor sport, racing gripped the nation, and the great contests, such as the Epsom Derby, the St. Leger, The Oaks, and, of course, the Royal meeting at Ascot, were peaks of national excitement. As many as a quarter of a million people would make their way to Epsom to watch the Derby. By the 19th century, such was the grip of racing fever in the highest circles that even the business of governing the country was suspended when there was racing; for a period from 1847, on the suggestion of racing addict Lord George Bentinck, both Houses of Parliament adjourned for the majority of the week in which the Derby was run. Lord Palmerston called this holiday “part of the unwritten law of Parliament”. Racing affected every aspect of national life, including men’s dress, whether it was in the natty Newmarket cut of a clerk’s coat or the gradual erosion of the hegemony of the frock coat, as H.P. Price, the author of the 1936 book with the extraordinary title When Men Wore Muffs, explains: “The frock coat was universally worn for all ordinary purposes, but when the ‘quality’ rode they found the square skirts of the frock coat a hindrance. So, placing comfort first, as always, the Victorian men turned back the flaps and buttoned them at the waist. Later, the flap itself was shaped away, leaving the more elegant lines of our morning and evening tailcoats. The buttons remain to remind us of the practical minds of our forefathers.”
Ours is the age of Beau Blasberg, a time when men dress as Derek decrees and hashtag themselves as gentlemen on social media, so it is hard to imagine a time when the ‘quality’ — a few hundred members of a landed elite who lived in large, draughty houses and devoted themselves to the pursuit of fashion, foxes and racing trophies — were the cynosures of the world. Their minutest sartorial inflections were mimicked the world over; they lent their names to the styles and neologisms they pioneered, whether of convenience food, boot, sleeve, carriage or knitted garment. These were also times before work became the secular religion it is today: to be a gentleman of leisure was to have achieved life’s ultimate goal. It was not in making money, but in disposing of it elegantly — and when it came to filling time and emptying the coffers, few activities eclipsed racing. By the 19th century, to be told that one looked like an English lord was the highest form of praise. And it is largely thanks to them that, for a week each summer, large numbers of men don cashmere-striped (or ‘spongebag’) trousers, buff waistcoats, tailcoats and top hats in order to walk around a patch of fenced-off grass near a racecourse just outside the M25. Indeed, there was a time in the 19th century when the clothes threatened to eclipse the racing. Even the legendary sporting writer ‘Nimrod’ conceded: “The charms of Ascot, to those not interested in the horses, consist in the promenade on the course between the various races, where the highest fashion, in its best garb, mingles with the crowd, and gives a brilliant effect to the passing scene.” The trouble was that this wrecked the surface for racing, and it was only around the turn of the century that the fashionistas were persuaded to strut about the paddock. Nimrod was writing this at around the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne, and things at the races were a little less… ahem… structured than they are today. Even royalty was likely to get jostled in the crush, which is what happened one year when the Emperor of Russia, the King of Saxony and Prince Albert left the safety of the royal stand to look at some horses. Thus, in 1845, an enclosure was added to Her Majesty’s stand to enable horses to be inspected, air to be taken, and clothes to be displayed without being pushed and shoved. And so, for the last 173 years, that patch of grass has been the most famous V.I.P. zone in the world. In fact, the Royal Enclosure is probably the only V.I.P. zone to have won an Academy Award: when dressed by Cecil Beaton and set to music for the Ascot gavotte, it provided the most memorable sequence of My Fair Lady, for which Beaton won the Academy Awards for best costume design and production design. For many, it is from My Fair Lady that the ideal of the Royal Enclosure is derived. Beaton in turn is said to have been inspired by looking at photographs of Black Ascot, a remarkable monochrome spectacle that bookended the Edwardian era, when the guests in the Royal Enclosure wore mourning in 1901 to mark the death of Queen Victoria and again in 1910 when Edward VII died. It is from this period that much of the rigid formality associated with Ascot dates. Edward VII reduced the numbers of people eligible to enter the Royal Enclosure until it roughly corresponded to those who could be presented at court.
Early 20th-century Ascot was fastidious, and no one was more fastidious than Sir Gordon Carter, clerk of the course, who made sure his shoelaces were washed and ironed every day. One account of Sir Gordon’s schedule during Royal Ascot records five changes of outfit: “During Royal Ascot, Sir Gordon would be on the course, in riding kit, at seven in the morning. Later he would change into a lounge suit at his office. At noon he crossed the road to his home, to change into morning dress. When the royal procession came down the course, he stood always at the gate where the procession left the racecourse. It was at this spot that his ashes were scattered after his death. “After the first race, which was 1.30p.m., there was a break of one hour for luncheon. Sir Gordon Carter and his house party always took luncheon in a private dining room on the course. After the racing, his valet brought another lounge suit over to the office into which Sir Gordon changed. He changed again, for the fifth time that day, into evening dress for dinner, an eight-course affair of iced melon, soup, fish, entrée, water ice, saddle of lamb, sweet, savoury and dessert, followed by coffee, liqueurs and cigars.” The authorities did their best to keep the less agreeable modernities out of the Royal Enclosure, as the 2002 book Ascot: The History makes clear: “A stir had been caused in 1895, when during the meeting the Master of the Buckhounds, Lord Ribblesdale, had been informed that ‘an individual with a Kodak was loose in the enclosure’, photographing the royal party, and ‘when last seen was actively engaged upon a group of duchesses’. The offender was rapidly tracked down, and turned out to be ‘a distinguished visitor to our shores, accredited by the embassy of one of the great powers, and a relative of an ex-crowned head’. The man’s rank clearly stood him in good stead, as after delivering ‘a wordy reprimand’, Ribblesdale invited him to lunch.” But while a visitor from overseas could be forgiven for not understanding how things were done, others were less fortunate, as poor old Lord Harris found: when wearing a brown bowler hat to Ascot, he was accosted by Edward VII with the words, “Goin’ rattin’, ’Arris?” Nevertheless, Harris had his supporters “another top-hat Ascot”, moaned the satirist Robert Hichens at the turn of the century. “I wish the Prince of Wales would set the fashion of billycocks.” Yet the top hat and the tailcoat made Ascot what it is today, otherwise it would be just another week of racing. The splendour of the Royal Enclosure in Edward VII’s day testifies to the power of the British Empire at its zenith, and in his memoirs the Duke of Windsor writes with relief that after the First World War, “Ascot was brilliant, with everybody out in grey toppers, as before the war”. Things were very different in 1946, the year of what one might call Austerity Ascot. “By the king’s order the meeting will be on austerity lines,” The Times reported. “In the royal enclosure, uniforms or lounge suits will be the correct wear for men. To avoid providing luncheons on a big scale, racing each day will not begin until 2.30.” Lord Harris would have been happy to see that devotees of the bowler, billycock or Coke hat seized the opportunity for a revival. “The billycock, now usually called bowler, is once more presenting a problem, if we may judge from the accounts of Ascot,” The Times said. “To men, the absorbing question is whether the bowler, which has been for some while seeping back into a qualified popularity, is now openly to return to its ancient kingdom. All those most likely to lead the fashion wore, as we gather, bowlers with their lounge suits at Ascot, and this can hardly be without its effect.” As history confirms, the topper prevailed. Instead, when it comes to wearing a bowler hat at the races, one has to look across the Channel, to France, where the undisputed master was Baron Guy de Rothschild. And in the second half of the 20th century it was often the visitors to Royal Ascot who led the fashions. The old Aga Khan, for instance, popularised the wearing of buttonholes, and his son Aly Khan, a fabled ladies’ man, managed to bring his own sort of glamour to morning dress, although given a schedule more crowded than Sir Gordon’s it is remarkable that he found time to change his clothes. “I once left Aly at four in the morning in Deauville,” recalled one friend. “When I got back to his house late that same day, he had ridden a horse in the morning, played tennis, flown to England to watch one of his horses run, flown back, and then we played bridge until three the next morning. Meanwhile, he had a few girls around to relax to. At three in the morning he took his car and drove off to the casino.” It was a typical 23 hours in the life of Aly Khan — well, 27 hours, actually: “He came back at seven and slept until nine.” And therein lies the trick to wearing a morning coat — not treating it as ‘fancy’ or formal dress but as a set of overalls for the business of going to the races, to be put on with care and then forgotten about. And it is to the forgetfulness of so many badge holders for the Royal Enclosure that London in June owes one of its more picturesque aestival sights, when, on fine evenings during Ascot week, men in morning coats can be seen around Mayfair and the West End after the races, making the most of their daytime tails. Sir Gordon Carter would not have approved… I just hope they have ironed their shoelaces. This article originally appeared in Issue 58 of The Rake.