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).