Ascot is one of the highlights of the summer season British social calendar and was first established by Queen Anne in 1711 it wasn’t until 1911 that it became known as Royal Ascot and to date 11 monarchs have lent their patronage to this historic occasion. It is horse racing at its best and is often referred to as ‘The sport of Kings’ although today in the spirit of inclusiveness it probably should add ‘and Queens’.
The Queen is an avid racing fan and has never missed a race meeting and who likes nothing better than cheering on her own horses. This year was the first time I had attended Royal Ascot to which all my friends were horrified at ‘what you’ve never been to Ascot’. The truth is I have never been invited and have only been interested if an invitation was to the Royal enclosure where morning dress is mandatory.
I have been fortunate to attend The Derby several times where morning dress rules also apply and to Glorious Goodwood where the dress code is more relaxed in that Gentlemen are advised to wear pale lightweight suits with Panama hats and where it is acceptable to wear co-respondent shoes. I think the sense of dressing for an occasion is something we Brits excel at and the Royal enclosure at Royal Ascot is one such event.
The morning coat as we know it today first appeared when Beau Brummell introduced the concept of a black cutaway coat that had no pockets so that the line of the coat was sleek and elegant departing from the more dandified fashion of colourful embroidered tailcoats and dictating ‘that men of style should always be simply but elegantly dressed’, wise words and in my own words I would add ‘formal dress is not fancy dress’.I was delighted when last year I was invited to Royal Ascot by a customer for whom we had made a complete morning dress ensemble and was so thrilled with the result that he extended an invitation to me.
Unfortunately I had out grown my second hand morning coat that had been made in the 1930s and one that I had picked up in Portobello road for a song. It had been beautifully made and I was particularly attracted to the silk taped edges so I asked my cutter at J.P Hackett Savile Row to reproduce the style. And then COVID-19 struck and Royal Ascot was cancelled so my morning coat languished in our workrooms unfinished until this Spring when out of the blue I was once again invited to Ascot.
My tailcoat was completed and it fitted like a dream. It had been made from a 12 oz dull finished black hop sack and the silk tape edges looked splendid. I had chosen a buff single breasted linen waistcoat and added the white Marcella slips that are worn for royal occasions and state funerals. The double pleated trousers held up with braces I had made with a graphic block stripe and a longer rise to alleviate that heinous sartorial gap between waistcoat and trousers. I had a fine blue and white stripe shirt made with a white collar that I then had starched that very effectively gave the appearance of a stiff separate collar.
I decided on a vintage linen silk glen check Hermes tie that I had picked up in a charity shop admittedly it was in a smart part of town adding my Muffin silver tie pin.For me the whole morning dress outfit can be spoilt by bad shoes and as my father used to say ‘I am too poor to buy cheap shoes‘ so i settled on a pair of my most comfortable and well worn bespoke black oxfords from George Cleverley, well polished naturally and long black silk socks to avoid that other sartorial blunder of showing flesh between socks and trousers. It has been said that Beau Brummell spent five hours getting dressed, I managed to shower, shave and be dressed in half an hour. On the big day, Friday the weather forecast had promised rain and boy did they deliver I was glad that I had remembered my well furled umbrella and my vintage silk top hat without which I would have been denied entry.
Silk top hats are now not made because the silk plush looms are no longer in existence. Vintage top hats can still be bought but in larger sizes the cost can rise to many thousands of pounds. Locks the hatters in St James’s stock vintage hats and can also restore one for you. In a party of four we motored down to Ascot in a 1977 Rolls Royce that had been fully restored and As I sat in the back on the beautiful blue Connolly leather seat I thought to my self I could get used to this. Arriving at Ascot we were directed to a muddy field car park that I had been informed was car park No1 next to the royal enclosure and by all accounts was the place to park and that one could be on a waiting list for many years before acquiring the privilege to park there.
Due to COVID 19 restrictions numbers were restricted hence the car park that normally would be overflowing with Rolls Royces, Bentleys and classic cars all brought out for this prestigious occasion sadly was half empty, usually there would be marquees set up for Gentlemen’s clubs such as Whites and Boodles to entertain their members The car park is where picnics are held and where we had planned to picnic under blue skies and sunshine; it wasn’t to be. By now the rain was torrential but one of the guests had thoughtfully brought along a covered gazebo and a table was set up and a sumptuous lunch laid out for later but first drinks in the Royal enclosure. We all squelched across the field where the ladies Manola Blahnik shoes were sinking into the quagmire.
The royal enclosure was buzzing and race goers were quaffing champagne whilst studying their race cards and placing bets, a bit of rain wasn’t going to spoil their day. Outside but under canvas top hatted Gentlemen and ladies in exotic hats were studying the form of the race horses being led around the ring. I decided to go for a stroll with champagne flute in hand I was keen to see how well turned out the gentlemen were. On the whole most of the fellows were looking rakish and well put together although I did see some horrors, hats that were to large and almost sitting on the owners ears, inappropriate shoes, but I did spot a chap wearing Gucci loafers with the horse bit whilst not correct added a nod to horse racing. One Gentleman was sporting a three piece mid grey pic and pic morning coat outfit similar to the one that the PoW wears and very dashing he looked. The three piece morning coat attire became popular back in the 1950s when the movie ‘My Fair Lady’ came out and all the costumes and sets had been designed by Cecil Beaton. Out on the grandstand and still teaming with rain it was rumoured that racing may not even take place due to the course being sodden.
Race goers clustered under umbrellas and the ladies shivered in their summer dresses. Only a couple of days ago the weather had been perfect and the grandstands were full and the atmosphere jovial. I joined a small group of serious gamblers who had braved the rain to watch the thoroughbred horses walking around the ring and as they were led out with the jockeys mounted I was captivated by their vibrant racing silk colours. At one time jockeys were allowed to wear what ever they liked which brought confusion as to who the individual riders might be and so racing silk colours were introduced that had been decided by each of the owners. Racing did take place and although the temperature failed to rise the excitement was palpable. The race is over in no time and I watched a couple of seasoned punters leave the grandstand bitterly disappointed no doubt to drown their sorrows in champagne whilst another visibly excited, leave to celebrate with champagne all round. I had been informed that 56.000 bottles of champagne are drunk during Ascot week.
I stood in a line to place a bet with no idea which horse to back when I overheard a pair of betting men who sounded knowledgeable so I backed the same horse; I lost. I have never been a gambler I can’t bear the disappointment of not winning but in the spirit of the day I had another glass of champagne and felt much better and sauntered back to the car park for the picnic lunch. There is a lot of talk about Ascot being for ‘toffs’ but I encountered all classes of people from aristocrats to people like me ‘in trade’. In fact I am not old money or new money but no money. Lunch was a splendid occasion downed with a liberal amount of champagne and much hilarity. Ascot is very much a social affair and the horse racing for many of those attending, a bit of a sideshow although we did venture back to the grandstand to watch the final race before hastily returning for afternoon tea that for me was the highlight of the day who can resist cucumber sandwiches, smoke salmon, and scones with strawberry jam and cream all washed down with more champagne. When we were leaving and I was slumped in the back of the Roller I peered out of the window and spotted a couple in the back of a Bentley who were both in a state of being inappropriately half dressed and no I didn’t take a photograph. As they say about Royal Ascot . Like nowhere else’