Image: The Royal Procession in 1847 by George James Crawthorne and Richard S. Herod
This year is the 200th anniversary of the Royal Box at Ascot racecourse, and we are taking a look at the two most prestigious events on the racing calendar and their historic place in London’s Season. These race meetings, both held in June, are still summer highlights, so now is the time to follow a great British tradition and plan an outing to Epsom or Ascot.
The cream of London society – beaux and dandies, debutantes and their doting mothers – all looked forward with eager anticipation to the Summer Season. From May 1780 the Queen Charlotte’s ball, held originally to celebrate the Royal birthday, was the annual launch pad for the Season’s new crop of eligible young women, who were presented to the Queen and curtseyed to her as she stood next to an over-size birthday cake. From this point on they were debutantes, and the social whirlwind of balls, parties and soirées swept them along until the end of July, when the exhausted social butterflies were able to take some well-earned rest and relaxation in their country homes.
But the Season wasn’t just about balls and parties – it encompassed other pastimes, the most important being horse-racing, long a passion of British aristocrats and the royal family (it was known as the “sport of kings”). Some of the most famous horse-racing events can date their origins to the 18th century, and they survive – complete with long-established traditions and rituals – to the present day, when they have come to symbolise a quintessentially British summer.
Beyond the obvious fascination with all things equestrian, prestigious race meetings offered a social cornucopia: the excitement of betting at Tattersalls; the opportunity to be seen in the Royal Box; the delights of mingling with high society in the covered Grandstand; the chance to socialise with fellow enthusiasts at the race balls that accompanied the meeting.
The first race meeting ever held at Ascot took place on 11 August 1711 and was instigated by Queen Anne, but it was with the accession of George II that the race became truly popular. By 1813, races at Ascot were such a part of the fabric of England that Parliament stepped in, passing an act to ensure the racing grounds remained a public racecourse.
Prinny, the future King George IV, made Ascot one of the most fashionable social occasions of the year. The Royal Enclosure at Ascot dates back to the 1790s, when a separate Royal Stand was erected. The exclusive Royal Box, commissioned by George IV in 1822, was only accessible to guests brandishing a royal invitation.
Outfits for Royal Ascot were planned well in advance, and were always topped by extravagant hats and bonnets. Gold Cup Day is colloquially known as ‘Ladies’ Day’ (Thursday). The term seems to be have been first used in 1823, when an anonymous poet described the Thursday of the Royal Meeting as “Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine.”
To this day, Royal Ascot, which holds five days of flat racing in mid-June, continues to be a key date in the social calendar, combining venerable tradition with fashionable panache when hordes of well-dressed racegoers descend on the Berkshire town.
In keeping with its Royal antecedents and illustrious place on the social calendar, Ascot still operates strict dress codes. To gain entry into the 200-year-old Royal Enclosure, race-goers must be recommended by someone who is already on the list. Convicted criminals and undischarged bankrupts are barred from the Royal Enclosure. Divorcées have only been allowed in since 1955.
Men must wear a morning suit, national dress or uniform, with top hats and no brown shoes. Ladies must sport hats and formal daywear – dresses and skirts that are no more than two inches above the knee. Dresses that are strapless, halterneck, off the shoulder or have spaghetti straps are not permitted. Trousers may only be worn as part of a suit. Bare legs are frowned upon. Stilettos are not recommended, as they make walking on grass difficult.
Visitors also dress smartly for the Grandstand. Many ladies wear hats, although this is not obligatory. Gentlemen are required to wear a suit or jacket, in both cases with a tie.
Royal Ascot takes place 14–18 June 2022
The first recorded Epsom Derby race meeting was held on Epsom Downs in 1661. In 1779 the 12th Earl of Derby organised a race for himself and his friends to run their three-year-old fillies over a mile, and this race was subsequently called ‘the Oaks’, after the Earl’s country estate. A similar race was suggested for colts and fillies, which was to be inaugurated the following year, 1780. The title of the race was decided after the Earl of Derby and his friend and fellow-racing enthusiast Sir Charles Bunbury flipped a coin. In 1784 the course was extended to its current distance of a mile-and-a-half.
By the end of the 18th century the Derby was already well established as the day when Londoners of all classes decamped to the country (until the 20th century Derby Day was traditionally a Wednesday). In 1793 the Times reported: “The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs, the people running down and jostling each other as they met in contact.”
For many ordinary people it was simply a day out – a chance to drink, gamble (various games of chance were on offer in the tents that sprawled across the Downs), and to attend entertainments such as cockfighting and bare-knuckle boxing. For the aristocrats and royalty who attended, it was an opportunity to display their knowledge of horseflesh, and their passion for the sport and betting.
The Grandstand at Epsom was not built until 1829. Before then the upper classes, who came in their own carriages, paid for the privilege of parking where there was a good view of the racing, well away from rowdy crowds and their boisterous enjoyment.
Today, the Derby Festival is still considered one of the most iconic events on the summer sporting calendar. It is held over two days; Derby Day is on the Saturday and Ladies’ Day, when the Oaks is run, is on the Friday. The fashion stakes are high and elaborate headwear and colourful dresses are the norm.
While the Tattenham Picnic Area and the Hill allow spectators to relax and enjoy the view, dress codes apply to the range enclosures at Epsom; in the Grandstand smart casual clothes (jacket, collared shirt) are encouraged. Ladies do not have to wear a hat but the majority do.
Within the Queen’s Stand a strict dress code applies; black or grey Morning Dress with a top hat, service dress or full national costume is traditional and obligatory for gentlemen on Derby Day. Ladies are asked to wear formal day dress, or a trouser suit, with a hat or fascinator. On Ladies’ day within the Queen’s Stand, gentlemen are asked to wear a jacket, collar and tie. Ladies do not have to wear a hat but the majority do. Jeans, sports shorts, denim or trainers are not acceptable.
The Derby Festival takes place 3–4 June 2022
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