Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dressing for Ascot

Girls pose for a photograph on the second day of Royal Ascot. Photo: Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Girls pose for a photograph on the second day of Royal Ascot. Photo: Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Hilary Alexander

As Ascot opens next week, take note of Hilary Alexander's dos and don'ts for special occasions.

If there are two words guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of any woman, they are “special” and “occasion”. A mere mention sounds the alarm bells and the style barometer plummets to panic-station setting. Stage two of the drama brings the question we all know and fear: what am I going to wear? At this point, a condition known as brain freeze replaces all normal thought processes.

Brain freeze or SOM (Special Occasion Meltdown) is responsible for mothers-of-the-brides hurling themselves at the nearest, fairy-like pile of shimmering turquoise crêpe or candy-pink chiffon, with matching shoes, bag and hat. It suspends common sense long enough for women under 50 to believe a metallic sequinned cocktail dress is the perfect attire for a day at the races.

Surveys have shown that British women are often at the bottom of the class when it comes to holiday dressing, but we fail just as miserably when it is a special occasion. And where we go wrong is that we don’t adhere to the dress code. Follow it, and as long as you are also armed with a healthy dose of common sense, you should manage to avoid causing offence or appearing as MDL (Mutton Dressed as Lamb).

The Royal Enclosure at Ascot asks women to have shoulders covered, for hem-lengths to sit not too far above the knee, for jackets and trousers to match in colour and fabric, and for hats to cover the crown of the head.

These rules are not draconian, but they do rule out – and this should be obvious – strapless micros, black leather biker jackets with leopard-print leggings, flip-flops and a lone pheasant feather masquerading as a hat.

The Henley Royal Regatta is more strict, and the stewards will have no compunction in turning you away if you do not comply, deaf to any cries of, “But don’t you know who I am?”. Dresses or skirts must cover all of the knee – mid-calf is the safest option – and divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind are not permitted. Hats are encouraged.

The under-30s are advised not to use any former BB contestants as role models. The Z-list celebrity culture might have made it appear as if pelmet skirts, dresses that expose your underwear (at times, no underwear at all) and cleavage down to your navel is normal. It is not. It merely slakes the night-time hunger of the paparazzi sharks. The secret of special-occasion dressing is to remember a few words that might sound terribly old-fashioned, but which, in fact, are on-trend when it comes to getting it right: sweet, pretty, modest, appropriate and flattering. And not a single one of them means frumpy.

Top tips for a stress-free day at the races

The golden rule is nothing too short, too tight or too bright

Choose an extravagant hat with a plain dress or suit, or a plain hat with a printed or embellished outfit

Don’t forget comfort: you will be on your toes all day

Floaty dresses or tailored suit/jacket, dress/coat ensembles are more flattering; avoid slinky body-con looks unless you have a perfect figure and legs

Less is more when it comes to jewellery, but have fun with a decorated bag

Have a dress rehearsal at home to check everything fits and flatters

Hats are generally smaller than the massive pizza-plate styles that dominated in the Nineties

Fascinators are fine as long as they are substantial and secured. Take extra pins as a precaution

Can’t find the perfect hat? Buy a straw hat and decorate with fake flowers to match your outfit. Or use fresh flowers: I’ve seen hats trimmed with real roses

Ascot has a habit of being blisteringly hot or wet, and neither conditions are ideal for a new pair of “my feet are killing me” stilettos. Wear smart mid-heels, kitten heels or courts. Slip a pair of ballet pumps into your handbag for light relief, or carry a pack of Party Feet gel cushions

And don’t forget your best accessory – a smile!


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