The Thursday Essay: Royal Ascot is a real class act

Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot means hats, tailcoats and demure hemlines. It's all for fun – but decode the dress, and social divisions are laid bare, writes Liz Hoggard
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The Independent Online

Only formal day dress with a hat or substantial fascinator will be acceptable. Off the shoulder, halter-necks, spaghetti straps, dresses with a strap of less than one inch and miniskirts are considered unsuitable. Midriffs must be covered and trouser suits must be full-length and of matching material and colour."

This is the dress code for the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot. Gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat. So they just look like mad penguins. But if you don't comply, bowler-hatted stewards will ask you to leave the enclosure.

Like many chippy comprehensive school kids, I have a love-hate relationship with The Season – that social marathon of balls, dinner parties, regattas and racing that runs from April to August. I enjoy ritual and collective eccentricity – something the English do brilliantly. And everyone likes an opportunity for dressing-up. We are the country that lacks a national costume after all. Plus for all the champagne quaffing and skirt measuring – faking it sartorially is a big part of Ascot. In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins is able to pass a flower girl off as duchess.

But something has subtly changed this year. The dreaded C-word has raised its head. In Coalition Britain, where the new Government is stuffed with old Etonians, and the landowning aristocratic and gentry families, the old class uniforms look slightly more sinister. Am I the only one who finds it creepy that commentators are queuing up to claim that Cameron and Clegg and Zac were born to rule – that their innate good looks and breeding equip them for the task?

Posh people have a head start in life. They have better skin and hair (good genes, plenty of leisure, lack of brow-furrowing debt). They have charm. And –- for all the classless, centrist image that has been so cleverly constructed for the new Tory party – they have pots of money. We hear a lot about Sam and Dave wearing high-street labels (Zara, Reiss, Gap) and Boden separates. But Sam's M&S dress was specially run up for her (the original had sold out). This is the woman – daughter of a baronet – who designs £950 handbags. Which makes you wonder, is fashion and appearance really classless now, or in Cameron's Britain is it a visible marker of Britain's ancient social divides?

One of the more delicious stories of the year was when an ex-employee stole confidential information (including "intimate measurements") from Savile Row tailor Ede & Ravenscroft. With a client list that includes Prince Charles, Cameron and Boris Johnson, the tailoring firm holds three Royal Warrants and has made robes since the 1690s for monarchs, peers, judges and even the "uniform" for members of Oxford's Bullingdon, the notorious Oxford dining club where Cameron and Johnson were student members.

So will today's Ladies' Day be the best sort of English pageant – or a nasty piece of class- baiting? You only have to look at the current backlash against England's Wags, who have been banned from the World Cup. The irony is that racing and football have always been the working man's sport. For Philippa Stockley, clothing historian and novelist: "Historically, racing always provided a chance for the masses to dress up in their 'Sunday best' and enjoy the sport of kings for a few bob. William Powell Frith's classic Victorian painting Derby Day shows all classes thronging to enjoy the ambience of a race course. Ladies' Day – a colloquialism for the Gold Cup, one of the most exhilarating days of flat racing – has become an opportunity for women to dress up as flamboyantly as they like."

Is she worried by the new vulgarity? "Ever since hatmaker David Shilling started making astonishingly large and showy hats for his mother to wear at this event in the 1970s, a certain fun-fair attitude took over. The tide is turning away from this now. We all have our own views about where the line is on bulging displays of flesh; or glaring colours; yet, lines can often be crossed by someone with true style – which has nothing to do with class. In a situation where breasts and buttocks are both displayed in a dress, the 'more is more' rule can come into play; but otherwise the most useful rule about dress is this: snobbery is often confused with class, but good taste can never be mistaken."

Experts argue that the Ladies' Day catwalk is a fashion anachronism in a world where it's high- street chains such as TopShop and Debenhams that keep the most avant-garde British fashion designers afloat. Even Princess Beatrice wore to last year's Ascot a Kate Moss for TopShop jacket (£90) with shoes from Office. And websites such as Net A Porter mean you can look up the price of your best friend's outfit in a matter of seconds.

"In all my 14 years as a fashion writer, I have never found Ladies' Day interesting enough to cover seriously," Grazia fashion editor at large, Melanie Rickey, tells me. "I find it irrelevant to the everyday woman, and think that newspapers cover it so we can sneer at the wannabe Wags who tend to make a fool of themselves.

"However," she adds, "it is useful to know the rules for dressing the event. Also to know the people who have done, or are doing, the event sartorially correctly and with élan. That is an article I would read. Fashion and appearance can be 'classless', but what we really mean by that is that, for it look classless, the lower orders have to blend with the upper orders. If one is not upper- class that takes work and research!"

"Everyone loves the whole English tradition of dressing up for a day out," agrees Barbara Horspool, group design director of New Look, the high-street chain famous for its collaborations with British designers such as Giles Deacon. "I don't have a problem with the Ascot dress code. But I just wish the clothes were more original. Everyone seems to wear the same Cheryl Cole-esque dress and a fascinator. There are rows and rows of bloody fascinators. Surely the whole point is to find your own style." Meanwhile social anthropologist Kate Fox argues that the racecourse is the place we see the English in the behavioural equivalent of full national costume. All these 'stage English' items of clothing – hats, waistcoats, veils and fascinators – bear no relationship to fashion. It's about tribalism, conformity, a uniform. Just as much as Goths or bikers or Drum and Bass kids. The only person who is truly eccentric, she argues in her book Watching The English, is the Queen, who continues to wear the same highly idiosyncratic style of clothing (a modified Fifties retro look) with no regard to anyone else's opinion. For Fox, she puts "the herds of street-sheep and their haute- couture imitators" in the shade.

Another shock for class-averse types like myself is that Ascot isn't really posh. Yes the Queen arrives each day by horse-drawn carriage but actually the Royal Family don't even sit in the Royal Enclosure. They descend in a private lift which brings them out in the Parade Ring.

For Dale Russell, a professor at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art: "The traditional Ladies' Day performance art – think Danny La Rue meets Hyacinth Bouquet – was embodied by Mrs Shilling and her oversize, themed hats. But by the 1990s it was no longer relevant, as Isabella Blow wearing Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen revealed the rise of the anti-establishment aristocrat – the complete antithesis of the Sloane Ranger. Today, the ritual and performance dividing the classes at Ascot is provided by the oligarchs and Wags, in the newly elected return to social divide through money masquerading as class," she says, adding that meanwhile "the 'upper class' continues to deceive itself that it's the real arbiter of taste". She points to the rise in the popularity of the cupcake as another indicator of the desire to partake in anachronistic ritual of blue bloods – afternoon tea.

Ascot was founded by a woman, and a fat one at that, bless her. Queen Anne was fanatically keen on hunting, despite being restricted to following her buckhounds in a light carriage because few horses could carry her. In 1711 she came upon an area of open heath, not far from Windsor Castle, that looked like an "ideal place for "horses to gallop at full stretch". She established the racecourse there, and it has enjoyed royal patronage ever since. The Gold Cup was introduced in 1807.

Until 1955, divorcees were not allowed into the Royal Enclosure – a rule that threatened to leave the Queen with no one to talk to. In 1995, gay activists targeted Ladies' Day, demanding entrance to the Royal Enclosure, declaring: "We are the queens of England!" Last year a model satirised the scandal of MPs expenses claims with an extravagant hat complete with duck house, bath plugs and a receipt.

Today anyone can get into the Silver Ring; the slightly fancier Grandstand admission ticket requires formal dress; while entry to the Royal Enclosure is by sponsorship from an existing badge holder who has attended for four previous years. In fact, Ascot is seen as much as a business and events arena, for corporate clients who don't mind spending a small fortune on a catering package. And in a climate of deficits and cuts, everyone's keeping their fingers crossed about this week's attendance figures.

Fiona, a fundraiser who grew up in Ascot says: "It's a social occasion and part of being British. Like the Chelsea Flower Show, Queens, Henley. It's about watching sport, dressing up and above all that great British summer tradition – the sporting picnic. Most people are genuinely interested in the horses, but obviously the champagne and clothes are a big part. You are as likely to see a someone spending all their time in the bar drinking and not watching the horses as you are in London gentleman's club like Whites. But they are few and far between, as most move from the paddock, to the bookies, to the course, and back to the parade ring with little time for the bars."

In these modern, meritocratic days, I still bristle at the idea anyone would dare anyone tell us how to comport ourselves, or decorate our bodies. Isn't our money as good as theirs? We all know that a dress code which talks about dangling bra straps and the importance of wearing knickers is aimed at common girls, not the daughters of Baronets. And how come an event called Ladies' Day is still about frocks rather than women jockeys? But I like Fox's theory that the racecourse is a micro-climate (like pubs and universities) which has its own behaviour patterns, norms and values that may be different from the cultural mainstream. Like first-time visitors to the theatre, we may need some help with the rules.

More than ever, we need our English rites of passage, which reconnect us with our more pagan past. Ford calls special days and mini-festivals "calendrical punctuation marks". They are a form of semicolon, involving a day off work, because as humans we need regular time out from our real life. Some of us may feel more comfortable with Wimbledon (we grew up watching it on the telly; it feels more democratic) than Henley or the polo. But rather than fretting what Dave and Boris think of our sartorial errors – our lack of breeding – maybe we need to reinvent the English Season. As Tim Lott argued in this paper at the weekend, what we need is a bit of tactical rebranding: redesigning the flag, the insignia, so they could represent something of modern, liberal, multicultural England rather than simply historical England, with its archaic deference to royalty.

"Of course Ascot is class-bound," Mary, a writer agrees. "But then so is everything. It perplexes me that anyone would want to go: horse racing and betting are so dull. But it is an opportunity to dress up super-smart and there aren't many excuses to do that for most of us, apart from weddings. The Royal Enclosure dress rules are hilarious: no spaghetti straps! What kind of bizarre puritan prudishness is that all about? Do they worry that Prince Philip will suffer that final fatal coronary from the acreage of bare flesh exposed?

"Posh girls have always dressed quite badly and frumpily, the sexiness generally had to be shipped in from the lower orders, who aren't afraid to put plenty of flesh on show," she says. "So maybe the rules are designed to deter tarty commoners from mingling with the upper classes and thus potentially diluting the blue blood lines... But if gangs of secretaries from Croydon want to buy Debenhams hats and get drunk in the sun, why not? Let people enjoy themselves while they can, in the new age of austerity."

And we can subvert tradition – in a courteous way. A lesbian friend has been invited to the Royal Academy's white-tie Annual Dinner. She was never going to wear a ball dress. So instead she's gone to Savile Row and commissioned a white suit. The tailors were appalled at first, but she won them over. And textile designer Lauren Shanley, who has a shop at London's Oxo Tower, has been flooded by commissions for civil ceremonies, debutante balls and Glyndebourne. Craftwork is a rebellion against the high street, she argues. "A lot of my clients say they love the fact that my clothes aren't identifiable in a mainstream way."

Yes the jokes about "Royal Chavscot" and girls in fake tan may sting a bit more this year. Especially when spouted by chinless wonders. But Sloane dressing is never going to be cool, thank God. When Lady Gaga wears a pastiche of Ascot every time she goes out, frankly what's the point of trying to compete by trotting out your old Peter Jones garden party number?