Head cases

Never mind betting on the horses, Ascot's serious money is blown beforehand - and mainly on hats. Jenny Knight looks forward to next Thursday's Ladies' Day. Photographs by Martin Salter

ither the woman with a lobster on her head is an exceptionally messy eater, or it's Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot. The lobster, which nestled next to a baguette and a selection of fruit on an edible hat worn by businesswoman Liz Lloyd Holt, was just one of last year's flights of millinery fancy.

Ladies' Day used to be a time for proper ladies, as they say in the East End, to display their finery. But that has been overtaken by a craze for starlets and show-offs to cram themselves into preposterous outfits in the hope of getting their names and faces in the papers.

Nottingham University student Katy Hirst set the tone in '97, attracting huge amounts of publicity when she balanced a 3ft-high model of the Eiffel Tower on her head. Hirst, who stole the limelight from a woman who'd spent pounds 4,000 on something resembling a hydrangea bush, explained that she couldn't afford a hat so she'd adapted a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. One gallant lady, undaunted by the difficulty of catching a photographer's eye once you've turned 50, ensured her place in the tabloids by using model cowboys and Indians to stage a shoot-out around her hat brim.

For years, Gertrude Shilling was the star of the show in a succession of silly hats designed by her schoolboy son David, who has since gone on to become famous for less exuberant headgear. Now that the amateur show-offs snatch the headlines, all the professionals can do is to make snooty remarks about good taste. This phrase is the unofficial motto of the Royal Enclosure, where the rich and genteel parade in their glad rags, cordoned off from hoi polloi. Entrance is strictly controlled. To get a ticket you have to be recommended by another Royal Enclosure regular who has attended for the past eight years in succession.

Joan Collins was turned away for two years running for presenting the wrong tickets. Models Paula Hamilton and Jilly Johnson, and even Princess Anne, made the newspapers when they tried to get in without their badges.

"But I'm the Princess Royal."

"Sorry lady, no badge, no entry."

Rejects from the Royal Enclosure can still mix with the high and mighty by buying pounds 45 tickets for the grandstand, which gives access to the paddock, where Her Majesty goes to admire a shapely equine leg.

Royal Ascot is Britain's most popular race meeting, attracting some 240,000 people over four days. It is also the most valuable race meeting in Europe. Total prize money this year reaches pounds 2,250,000. Some 185,000 bottles of champagne will be consumed, along with 1.75 tons of smoked salmon, four tons of strawberries, 500 gallons of cream and 145,000 glasses of Pimm's. There are 285 private boxes, each one catering for eight to 18 people, nearly 100 bars and 3,500 catering staff.

It is called Royal Ascot because it was Queen Anne who, in 1711, first saw the potential for building the racecourse while she was out riding near Windsor Castle. In 1820, the inaugural carriage procession for the Royal Family and guests was staged. Since then, the Queen and other Royals enter the Golden Gates at the far end of the racecourse and travel the length of the straight course in their horse-drawn carriages, before the racing begins. Even if it rains, the Queen still uses an open-topped landau, protecting her outfit with a see-through umbrella. (Noblesse, after all, obliges.)

The Queen's choice of hat attracted little excitement until bookmaker Paddy Power started to take bets on its colour and type, offering 25-1 on leopardskin and 500-1 on a baseball cap.

"The good taste of the hats seen at Ascot is variable," says Hatter by Royal Appointment, Frederick Fox. "There are people who go for the racing and those who go to be photographed. They go the full Monty and more. These hats tend to be do-it-yourself things, made by fashion students or people desperate to be noticed."

Fox's hats, which can cost up pounds 800, often end up as heirlooms, passed down from mother to daughter and sent back to the shop for a seasonal renovation.

"I have had to put a stop to taking hats in for alterations by the end of February each year," he says. "People were turning up in their scores the week before Ascot, asking for a revamp. The amount of space these hats take up is unbelievable."

Men's silk toppers are also handed down. The "recipe" for the topper's outer coating has apparently been lost, and all efforts to replicate it have failed. The original top hats, provided they have not suffered too many mishaps, can fetch nearly pounds 1,000.

Leaving aside the sartorial excesses of those who can afford handmade hats and designer labels, Ladies' Day is a celebration of the English custom of putting money and effort into dressing very badly. An on-course survey conducted last year revealed an average spend of pounds 400 an outfit.

The ensembles suggest that discordant colours, lumpy handbags, too-tight suits and laddered stockings are fashionable. Later in the day, creased skirts, champagne stains, bright cheeks, smeared lipstick, lascivious leers, the odd hiccup and even throwing up in the car-park increasingly are in. Some ladies even discard items of lingerie in and around the grandstand.

On the sobering crawl home, unsuccessful punters remember that for every winner there are many losers. The same goes for fashion. For every elegant winner there are scores of style failures - but does it matter so long as a good time was had by all?

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