Tuesday 11 December 2018

Politics of the dress code are a minefield

As the jumpsuit makes its royal debut at Ascot, the etiquette of what is worn is a serious business, writes Sophie Donaldson

STYLISH: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, at Royal Ascot last week. Picture: PA
STYLISH: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, at Royal Ascot last week. Picture: PA
GASP! Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, in her Ascot jumpsuit
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

'The board all felt, based on the evidence that I shared with them, that this was the right decision."

These are not the words of a sombre chairperson commenting on a damning fourth quarter budget. Nor were they spoken by a CEO who has made the difficult but necessary decision to restructure the company's workforce.

No, these comments were made by Juliet Slot, the commercial director of Royal Ascot racecourse, speaking about dress codes.

If that sounds like rather serious language to use, that's because this is a very serious matter.

"We are very considered about everything we do. Our customers and our members, particularly in the Royal Enclosure, have high expectations of what formal attire is," Slot commented last year, after the announcement was made that ladies in the Royal Enclosure would be permitted to wear jumpsuits for the first time.

Last week, the Countess of Wessex was the first royal to embrace the new ruling. She was resplendent in a cyan blue Emilia Wickstead jumpsuit that admittedly looked more like a dress thanks to the deep pleats on the flared trouser legs. A tentative embrace, perhaps, but an embrace nonetheless of this brave new world in which society women can wear jumpsuits - so long as they meet the requirements detailed in Royal Ascot's Style Guide.

Nobody takes dress codes more seriously than both the royals and race days. They are the only two institutions for which otherwise sane women will happily don a headpiece that resembles a bird's nest or a dinner plate, or something altogether more rude (I'm looking at you, Princess Eugenie).

Ascot is the creme de la creme of the high summer racing season, but summertime itself is laden with dress-coded affairs. Between summer weddings, garden parties, waterside soirees, picnics and ''casual'' barbecues, there is no other season so rife with rules dictating what, or what not, to wear.

There are probably two types of people in the world. The first see a dress code and breathe a sigh of relief. They see a dress code as some sort of sartorial shepherd, helping them navigate the murky rules surrounding boater hats and tea dresses, issuing sound advice on whether or not a dinner jacket is required or if a linen blazer will suffice.

These types of people probably also like signs that tell them where to queue, television guides and the fact nowadays you can book not only your cinema ticket in advance, but also choose your seat. They don't like to leave anything to chance.

The latter party see dress codes as domineering, unnecessary and perhaps a little bit stuffy. Grown adults are capable of doing some very stupid things, but do we really have so little faith in humanity we can't trust our guests to wear appropriate attire according to the event?

If the invitation arrives via a luxuriously padded envelope, requesting the pleasure of your attendance to a wedding in a country pile, with a five-course meal and champagne reception, you are hardly going to throw on a spangled kaftan and pool slides, are you?

Although, I really hope you do. There is something so deliciously audacious about somebody flagrantly flouting a dress code - like Jean Shrimpton sending Australian society darlings reeling after she attended the 1965 Melbourne Cup wearing a white minidress, without a hat, gloves or even pantyhose.

Of all the bizarre customs we have thrown out in the name of modernity, dress codes remain curiously entrenched in modern social etiquette. What seems to have enraptured people more than her marriage to Prince Harry is Meghan Markle's perceived tussle with her grandmother-in-law's primly enforced dress codes. The will-she-or-won't-she commentary about whether she would succumb to the Queen's most odious dress code and start wearing nude tights hasn't been dampened by the fact she has, several times, and will likely continue to do so.

We are fascinated by this, because it's not just royals who get caught up in the politics of what not to wear.

Just last week, in the midst of designing the invitations for our August wedding, my partner and I became embroiled in what was the most heated exchanged about our upcoming nuptials.

She insisted we needed to state a dress code, while I think it's entirely pointless. As a compromise, I suggested that our dress code be ''Fabulous Finery'', a suggestion met with a long, silent stare. The invitations have, for the moment, been put on hold.

While the Queen insists on nude tights, she relents in other ways. For instance, she insists on wearing gloves to almost every public engagement. Last week, the creative director of Cornelia James, the Queen's preferred glove maker, Genevieve James spoke to GoodHousekeeping.com about the practicalities behind this particular personal dress code.

"The mind's eye picture of the Queen is the white-gloved hand waving," James said, adding that "they're necessary because if you're the Queen, you're shaking a lot of hands, so they protect her hands as well".

While nude pantyhose are pretty awful, at least the Queen doesn't insist that other female royals follow this particular style decree. Both Kate and Meghan have dutifully relented when it comes to tights and hats, but perhaps the Queen knows better than to insist a thirtysomething woman wear a pair of Cornelia James' finest. She might fear that the gloves would quite literally come off.

Sunday Independent

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