“Come on Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!”
Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady
Horses, hats and gallons of Bolly – Royal Ascot is the very zenith of the British social calendar. The most famous and prestigious race meeting in the world sees the great and the good gather every year to have a flutter, laud it up in their finery and ogle the Queen and assorted royals in attendance every day. The byword for privilege and exclusivity, getting into the Royal Enclosure is something every Toff and wannabe toff must do as a right of passage. Here is my wee guide.
The dress code
Many people fall foul of the fashion police at Ascot – they are the most fastidious of any social gathering on the planet. A few years back the powers that be relaxed the rules – what ensued was a horror show in the name of bad taste. In crept vile little fascinators that were anything but, headpieces that got smaller, fussy and feathery until it looked like there had been a rush on the backstage sale at the Moulin Rouge. It got out of hand, and had to be stopped – thankfully the rules are now crystal clear for anyone in either the Royal Enclosure or anywhere else. There is is even a picture guidebook, so there are no excuses to look like you mistook it for a day out at Aintree.
The Royal Enclosure is sacrosanct – hats of a certain diameter for the girls, paired with a dress that hits the knee, the possibility of covered shoulders (thus jacket or shawl), and no spaghetti straps – they measure straps in inches not centimetres in Windsor. As well as knowing full well that that kind of 90s throwback fashion is just not if you’re not called Gigi or Cara. If you are picnicking, then a wedge may well save your life – the stability they offer has been well tested by the Middletons for decades. Watch and learn.
Boys – it’s a little easier. You can basically wear the same clobber year after year. Classic morning coat, with a striped trouser – I prefer the dark grey or black version. The light grey has to be very very expensive to pull off (N.B Prince Charles). Likewise with top hats – only go for black, and the best you can afford – mine is A 50s proper silk plush topper from Christies. Grey felt is acceptable, but it just doesn’t look as smart. Say it with accessories – a tie pin (stud, perhaps a wee jewelled one), varying your waistcoat (I prefer double breasted, mine coming from Favourbrook – single breasted seems too often to scream ‘rental’), and don’t match your tie with your pocket square (mine were all from Thomas Pink). Perhaps go for a contrast collar (where the body of the shirt is coloured or striped and the collar is white) – whereas with a business suit it looks spivvy, here it just looks smart.
My biggest Ascot bugbear is the inability of far too many men to wear their toppers properly. Some wear them on the back of their heads à la the Artful Dodger. As a youth, when I first went to Ascot, I was guilty of this misdemeanour – thinking I was trying to make the stuffiness a bit more ‘fashion’. It doesn’t work – you end up looking like a tit. Embrace your inner Edwardian and do it properly – there is no point fighting it.
Jeremy Irons was pulled up for wearing a frock coat this year, but if we are being truly fastidious, it is the formal version of the Morning Coat – I would very much advise against it if you actually want to get in. Only actors can get away with it…
You have a pass to car park one? You win. Bring a classic car, make a picnic, and roll on with the champagne to ease you into placing your bets. Discerning guests expect an effort, so if you have no time to prepare, if your cook is having a bi-annual meltdown, or you never went to Leith’s, then pop to Partridges on Duke of York Square, order the picnic par excellence and decant it all into your own Tupperware. Bring real crockery and glassware, and make people think you’ve slaved away for days. One cool box for booze, one for perishables, and the rest in that old Fortnum & Mason wicker hamper you were sent for Christmas a decade ago, hopefully just worn enough. The creaking will give you credibility. Alternatively, book a box, or a table in your club of choice and let them do the hard graft. After the 2nd bottle each, people will love you whatever you’ve arranged.
You know you’ve really made it if you make it into a landau. The Queen’s procession is a daily spectacle – as it hoves into view, the bookies pay out on whether You’ve guessed what colour Angela Kelly had popped Her Maj in, but you don’t care – you’re in the most exclusive club. It’s at the Queen’s personal invitation, with lunch at Windsor Castle beforehand – and cannot be bought. Try and get into the same carriage as Princess Michael of Kent – her matching of eye patch to outfit was my highlight of this year’s Ascot. Love a landau.
The Actual Racing
Racing Post devotees aside, most of us have no clue as to what we are doing when it comes to placing bets. I try to be patriotic, and back any of The Queen’s horses. The jockey’s silks are quite magnificent, and if you’re in for a win, you know you are fist-pumping at the exact same moment that Liz is too. It’s the closest you’ll get to the Cullinan III. Plump for pretty outfits and jockeys that are the favourite, and anything trained by Nicky Henderson. Avoid the tote (unless at tea, as you should never abandon pimms), and go to the trackside bookies – your odds will be much better, as well as being just so much more fun.
Departing in a civilized fashion
Going two days this past Ascot, I can unwaveringly confirm that booking a car to London, with a fair few bottles in the back, is far more civilised that trying to be parsimonious and getting the train. It’s a nightmare – you may lose your bottle in the bottleneck trying to get on the railway (which may take up to 45mins from ticket gate to carriage), and when on, you are not just a sardine but a sardine that is stuffed into a small can with other sardines that have been drinking since midday, encased in wool and glowing so profusely that you have to give up all pretence of looking remotely fabulous. If your buttonhole hasn’t wilted from your trackside losses, 5 minutes on that train will polish you and it both off.
Chauffeur. Magnum of vintage. Ice. Table booked at the Ivy (still in your clobber – everyone simply has to know…) . It’s the only way.