Dress as you feel says British Jockey Club, drops regulations - By Rolf Johnson

Posted on - 24 Feb 2023

Dress as you feel says British Jockey Club, drops regulations - 
By Rolf Johnson
I would feel I was undressed if I went racing without wearing my Indian Invitation Cup necktie, brown with the insignia of each Indian race club picked out in gold. India's aristocracy were 'posh' well before the British took their voyages back and forth to the Empire. That travel had to be First Class - Port Out, Starboard Home and the word was added to the English language.
The British Jockey Club has relaxed its Rules on Dress Codes, except at Royal Ascot and the Queen Elizabeth Grandstand on Derby Day when morning suits with waistcoats and top hats remain obligatory. Now nearly anything goes and 'Posh' is a dirty word. Is it old-fashioned to regret decline in standards, or must we acknowledge that times have changed and people must be permitted freedom of choice? You judge.
"C'mon Dover! Move your bloomin' arse!" blew the cover of common Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle dressed exquisitely, for the first time, for her Royal Ascot debut. Eliza urges Dover over the line in an outburst so vulgar, so raucous in the Oscar-winning 1964 film My Fair Lady that a neighbouring aristocrat, traditionally immaculate in his top hat and morning suit, faints in shock.
Letting emotions rip in a tight finish is no sin. I was 'over-excited', and so was the bloke next to me, when the Highclere runner took the lead at a Royal meeting. Not built for formal dress his vast, perspiring frame strained buttons and seams. His ear-splitting "Go on my son" urgings registered high on the Doolittle scale.
I ventured, tentatively: "Are you from Highclere?"
"Nah mate, Brixton, ahm from Brixton" one of London's less fashionable boroughs. I offered congratulations to my new best friend – less the high fives.
Language, accents, sort individuals out but the purpose of dress codes is to oblige crowds to conform – willingly, without coercion. Otherwise, the jobsworths (officials) in bowler hats step in to 'shepherd' the strays – the black sheep who have 'lost their way – to their allotted enclosure.
The original 'toff' Beau Brummel died destitute and shabby. Fashion is a living language spawning clichés such as form is transient, class is permanent – in togs or thoroughbreds.
In the early years of twentieth century Viscount Churchill discriminated, with prejudice, who was admitted to the Royal Enclosure and who wasn't. His receptacles for applications were marked - "Certainly", "Perhaps" and "Certainly not". The latter included divorcees; a protocol only rescinded after the diktat (from on high…very high) that "it appeared high-class criminals were being allowed freedoms that divorcees were denied."
One woman ventured where others feared to tread. Trailing cameramen in her wake Mrs Gertrude Shilling, would storm Royal Ascot wearing insane headgear and outrageous clothes during the 1960s and 70s. Australian drag queen Edna Everage (Barry Humphries) upstaged Mrs Shilling in 1976 by perching a model of the Sydney Opera House on his head. Gertrude responded with dazzling dottiness – a four-foot arrow through an apple - something to do with the archer William Tell; and a five-foot giraffe ensemble (?).
But for over the top exhibitionism racecourse tipster Prince Monolulu was runaway winner of the chutzpah stakes. In the post-war years charismatic West Indian giant Monolulu - allegedly he choked to death on a Black Magic chocolate – sported the gaudy dress code of an Abyssinian chieftain, topped with monster ostrich feathers. His huge presence took him places where others of his ilk could not tread – though not into the "Certainly" or even the 'Perhaps' boxes.
One time I too fell foul of the dress code - over a single button. Crossing the road into the Royal Enclosure with my trainer-boss, a fearsome ex-Army stickler through and through, he spotted I'd omitted to leave the bottom button of my waistcoat undone. Horrors; he halted the traffic to rollick me for sartorial criminality.
Edicts on the ebb and flow of Ascot hemlines, necklines, fascinators provide staple headlines for the media every June. The potentially catastrophic distraction of hot pants in the 1960s was hastily forestalled by a ban.  Oh, the apoplexy that would have caused – and not just among the horses.  Service dress is encouraged though that does not cover combat fatigues: national dress also has the thumbs up but excluded were the bare-bosomed costumes of ladies from far flung outposts of the British Empire - Polynesia or sub-Saharan Africa – which might have proved ticklish for tender Ascot sensibilities.
Australian bush hats, corks dangling from wide brims, might pass muster at Flemington on Melbourne Cup day – but not at Royal Ascot; not even as the Aussie sprinters are wiping the floor with ours. True story: an Australian couple landed at Heathrow from Sydney and taxied straightaway to Bath a course well down the pecking order to see their Highclere runner. Even after that taxing journey they were outstanding contenders for best-dressed couple. But their progress into the owner's enclosure was barred by an insistent official (ok another jobsworth) with the damning "Ladies wearing sneakers are not allowed." You can't climb the social ladder wearing the wrong boots but this lady was so chic she could have scaled mountain peaks in bare feet. The effort to convert him into grudging acceptance that £500 Gucci loafers with gold eyelets were not 'sneakers' (he meant trainers) didn't take the shine off the day; and the horse won too.
This year, the 149th of the Wimbledon tennis championships, white is out. Player's sportswear  had to be white, never "off white or cream". This year the outfit designers can mix their palettes with whatever colours take their fancy. And to think the ravens were already considering leaving the Tower of London (were it to happen legend has it the British nation will fall) when it was decreed MCC members in the Lords Pavilion could disrobe their 'egg and bacon' yellow and red striped blazers, in the scorching heat of last summer.
Tattersalls and Silver Rings in Britain were once a sea of flat caps and trilbies. Pity the poor 'Hatters' (still the football club's nickname) of Luton from where most men's headgear was made. (Peterborough FC, which has seen better times, is still nicknamed the 'Posh'). Glorious Goodwood wouldn't be either glorious or Goodwood without its panorama of Panamas.
From Beau Brummel's time – the early 1800s – formal dress has been an established part of horse racing's heritage. Codes are best when they become customs. The Jockey Club's abandonment of dress codes in its drive to make the sport more "accessible and inclusive" risks sacrificing the inclusivity of the crowd whose engagement is essential.
Racegoers are now 'free to wear (almost) what they want' at Cheltenham, Aintree, Newmarket, Sandown and Epsom. Do we need a debate on dress code when racing faces infinitely more profound problems? We're exhorted: "Racing really is for everyone". There has to be limits. Personally I agree with barring those sporting "offensive clothing and replica sports shirts". 'Offensive' can be confused with 'frivolous' but the designs and technicolours of modern football shirts are dog's dinners - if not full English breakfasts.
Coastal resort racecourses, Yarmouth and Newton Abbot, Brighton have always entertained their share of customers barely out of 'beach wear'. And the majority of tracks supplement their income with post racing popular entertainers, in the vain hope that their young fans, first for fashion, will be back, converted to racing, More chance of a Manchester United devotee turning traitor to support Arsenal.
So one final heartfelt plea: wherever you go racing to parade your sartorial leanings/disasters, when your 'Dover' moment comes, like Eliza Doolittle don't hold back; but try not to frighten the horses.
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