"In the millinery year, Royal Ascot is Christmas," says Stephen Jones and, as this country's foremost hatter, he should know. "It's probably the most important event for milliners and always has been, because that's when people wear extravagant hats. Yes, it's the ultimate millinery event of the year. Every year. Full stop."
This is saying quite something, given that Jones (pictured below) not only creates bespoke hats for the rich, famous and indeed royal, produces twice-yearly signature collections and the Miss Jones diffusion line, but also collaborates with the greatest talents in international fashion, designing catwalk millinery. Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo, Marc Jacobs and, most famously, John Galliano, are just three of the names he has worked with for years. He has it covered, then.
The flamboyant sartorial nature of Ascot started when Queen Anne bought the land near Windsor Castle that is the racecourse today. By the time it was ready for action, its original owner found herself in somewhat foul spirits and a favourite courtier (female), concerned that this might not be conducive to a good time had by all, dressed up as a man to put a smile back on her face. "It was the first year of Royal Ascot and she did it to make the proceedings go more amusingly," Jones says. "Since that time it has been all about dressing up."
Celebrating its 300th birthday when it opens on Tuesday, the event has, of course, changed immeasurably from the time when it took two days to travel there by horse and carriage from London. "Originally, Ascot was about the aristocracy – it's Royal Ascot, after all – but also the working classes. It was the lower classes, as they were known, that actually made the whole thing function; the two sides understood each other and rubbed along just fine. The middle classes didn't arrive until the birth of train travel and the aristocracy really couldn't cope with that," says Jones.
Ultimately, though, cope they did. It wasn't long, meanwhile, before both photography and the newsreel were born, at which point Ascot was immediately identified as a media opportunity par excellence. "It's so camera-friendly," enthuses Jones. "The royalty, the racing, the fashions – it's got it all."
Three centuries on, and for one week in June, race-goers – royalty, the general public and now at least a handful of the requisite celebrities – still gather in their finery, ensuring that the otherwise somewhat anachronistic code of dress best known as "occasion-wear", topped off as it invariably must be with a hat, still has its place.
"It's very strange, because the summer in Britain is when people spend money on clothes," says Jones. "They buy expensive clothes for race meetings and for weddings, but you never see anything like that featured in magazines, because it's not perceived as fashionable – it's not cool."
As the following highlights, commented on by Jones himself, go to show, such an unabashed display of formality nonetheless makes for quite irresistible eye candy. From the staunchly stiff to the sublime and the really rather ridiculous, Royal Ascot, and the hats at Royal Ascot especially, are a sight for sore eyes.
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