What to wear to a day at the races? It is a question that there is no definitive answer to – because the dress code and etiquette differs from country to country, racetrack to racetrack and even enclosure to enclosure.
If you are splashing out on the most expensive passes for entry, you may be required to wear a dress or lounge suit. Ladies can even be restricted by the length of the skirt or dress in some instances. Other venues worldwide couldn’t care if you are in ripped jeans and trainers, or shorts and t-shirt. The sports of kings is just about as eclectic as it can get.
On one side, it is all about high society and formality. At the same time, it is about comfort and warmth. Knowing your Royal Ascot etiquette from your Cheltenham dress code is essential – whether you want to stand out from the crowd, or blend in with the rest of the racegoers in the grandstands.
And having an idea of what is expected at world famous races like the Melbourne Cup or Kentucky Derby is wise if you don’t want to be turned away at the gates before you have seen a horse break sweat.
We’ve taken a look at the dress code and etiquette you will encounter at five of the world’s most famous horse racing events.
1 Royal Ascot
The pinnacle of horse racing in England, this is all about royalty and pageantry. This is the famous meeting where Her Majesty The Queen and the rest of the Royal family attend across five days in June. Everything oozes class at Royal Ascot. It has to when you think of the horse drawn carriages arriving up the track from Windsor before the opening race of each of the five days.
The Queen’s outfit, the colour of her hat, the style of it…it is one of the most talked about things of the entire week. Serious bets are taken on what she will be wearing. Racing meets fashion in the biggest sense at Royal Ascot.
The dress codes are tight, particularly if you manage to bag Royal Enclosure tickets. They are few and far between, but if you do you will need top hat and tails for the gents. Dresses and hats or fascinators are a must for female racegoers, and that all important below the knee guidance to avoid doubt.
In other enclosures, patrons may still choose the top hat and tails – just as many do at the Epsom Derby, where the Queen also attends. Many ladies will still opt for the requirements that the Royal Enclosure guests face. After all, a day out at the Royal Ascot should be cherished and made the most of. Saviour the occasion to brush shoulders, well sort of, with royalty.
While Royal Ascot is about the sunshine of the summer, if the British weather plays ball, the Cheltenham Festival is about the early glimmer of spring air. In the Gloucestershire countryside, it is tweed that is the dominant fashion rather than the tailored suits and immaculate dresses.
As the biggest event of the National Hunt racing calendar, the Cheltenham Festival attracts a wide array of clientele from across the United Kingdom. It also has a huge influx of Ireland’s horse racing fans from across the Irish Sea, so much so that one of the days of the four-day festival is assigned as St Patrick’s Day.
On that day in particular, green is the go-to colour as well as the black pint of Irish Guinness. On Ladies Day, it is all about style with some exceptional prizes up for grabs in the Best Dressed Lady and Best Hat competitions. If you want to impress, this is your day to turn up in your finest outfit.
But the major factor throughout the Cheltenham Festival is tweed. Tweed jackets, tweed hats and caps and even tweed dresses. This is the meeting for hardy country folk to gather and socialise, while watching the world’s best jump horses do battle. If you want to fit in, a tweed retailer is the first port of call.
3 Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby is America’s greatest race. Like many others around the world, it provides an opportunity to dress to impress and that comes in the form or eye-catching dresses and hats for the ladies as jackets, shirts and ties or bow ties for the gents. But there’s no hard-and-fast dress code restrictions at Churchill Downs Racecourse.
Pastel colours are typically worn, something that has been a bit of tradition at the event – and at the Kentucky Oaks, the sister event to the Derby. So, if you are thinking of heading to the track, get your colour palette out first. And go all out on the eccentricity too, because that’s what this event is noted for.
Hats are hugely popular at the Kentucky Derby, not least because of the Kentucky Derby hat parade. And nothing is off limits when it comes to choice. The old tale is that wearing a hat to the Kentucky Derby brings good luck. Your betting tickets at the end of the day will be the deciding factor in that.
4 Melbourne Cup
On the other side of the world on a (usually) balmy hot November day in Australia, the Melbourne Cup takes place at Flemington Racecourse. It is one of the biggest days in the Australian horse racing calendar, no surprise really when you consider the Melbourne Cup is known as the Race That Stops A Nation.
A public holiday on the first Tuesday in November each year, this is a day for socialites to head to the track. If you can’t get to the track, you will find Melbourne Cup parties across every town and city, in hotels and bars, and where a ticket is a must.
Melbourne Cup day is a day people spend with friends and family. Those among the usually 100,000 crowd at Flemington need to adhere to some important dress codes – unless you want to be left disappointed and on the outside looking in.
Much like Royal Ascot, if you find yourself in the premier enclosures at Flemington, Melbourne Cup Day requirements are top hat and tails, or dresses and hats. Step down a notch and lounge suits, ties and smart outfits are the order of the day. Most patrons opt for this given the popularity of Cup Day and the opportunity to really make an impression.
5 Durban July in South Africa
The Durban July is one of South Africa’s biggest crowd-drawers, with thousands descending on Greyville Racecourse. It is one of the dates in the calendar that is circled by horse racing lovers across the country, not just in Durban.
When it comes to dress code, particular attention is needed. That is because organisers of the Durban July choose a theme each year that racegoers can fulfil – although it isn’t a case of being turned away if you decide not to.
In 2019, the theme was the Star of Africa and saw some of the most colourful outfits chosen by men and ladies alike. The 2020 theme was to be butterflies, only for coronavirus to prevent any crowds attending the event. If you are planning on being at the Durban July in 2021, stay tuned for the theme being released!