Certain sections of British society seem to deploy dress codes as a barrier against the unwashed masses. Nowhere more so than the racecourse, where a Dante-rivalling succession of distinct enclosures, each with its own Byzantine traditions, turns a day watching horses run around into the sartorial equivalent of an Enigma machine.
According to Kristian Robson, of tailor Oliver Brown, there’s a simple(ish) rule of thumb: if the horses are jumping over things, then technically it’s winter and you should be in tweed. If their path is unimpeded, switch for formal morning dress.
Suits are passable year round – with a shirt and tie, naturally (this is no time for your tailoring and trainers) – but if the fences are up then plump for flannel. Otherwise, it’s lightweight wool or linen.
Easy, right? Well, not if you’re heading to one of the two year’s two biggest meets.
The Grand National
Technically, you could stroll up to Aintree in distressed denim. But unless you love side-eye from men whose parents own counties, we’d advise smartening up. “A smart, plain navy or grey city suit, or three-piece tweed suit, will ensure your style is winning,” says Robson. “Even if your horses aren’t.”
As you now know, those big hedges mean that it’s winter, according to the racing calendar. And since the British weather has a habit of agreeing with the Jockey Club, a sleeveless jumper beneath your jacket adds warmth without bulk, says champion rider turned champion trainer Paul Nicholls. “The best way to stand out is with a tailored three-piece tweed suit, a smart overcoat, and a trilby – or a smart tweed cap to dress the look down.”
On the subject of your outerwear, to up your equine credentials, reach for a covert coat. “It’s a style synonymous with jump racing,” says Robson. And has been since the late 19th century, when hunting types cut slits up a Chesterfield coat, so it would wrap around a saddle and still cover their legs.
Modern takes tend to lose the incisions, since they catch the wind when you’re not actually on horseback. But the best still feature a velvet collar and four or five lines of stitching at the cuff and hem. Originally, this reinforcement prevented tears when you encouraged your horse over bramble fences. But you’ll also appreciate them when you catch your sleeve in the car door.
Here’s where things get thorny. The course is split into three enclosures – Royal, Queen Anne, and Windsor – and expectations taper down in formality. For the latter two, a suit and tie avoids run-ins on the velvet rope.
Shoes are key – you’ll be on awkward ground all day, so your leather-soled Oxfords aren’t ideal. A brogue boot keeps your look country, but opt for a Dainite sole. It looks like leather from anywhere but beneath, where it features a subtle rubber base to help keep your footing. Because a muddy tumble definitely isn’t on the dress code.
If you’ve got a Royal Enclosure ticket, then you’ll need to step things up. “The rules state that it must be black or grey morning dress, include a waistcoat and tie – not a cravat – plus black shoes, and a black or grey top hat,” says Robson. Your head needs to stay covered whenever you’re outside, and don’t be tempted to dress up your topper – coloured ribbons are banned.
But this prescriptive code doesn’t preclude a dose of personality. Though Robson advises an Edwardian-style, plain morning coat with striped trousers, “the morning waistcoat is your chance to add some flair.”
If it’s chilly, opt for wool. If not, linen. But whatever your fabric, pick a shade like lemon or lilac so it pops amongst the black-clad crowd. “Single-breasted is youthful and works for a leaner build,” says Robson. “Double-breasted hides a rounder middle.” Just make sure to leave the bottom button undone.
Unless you plan a career as a vaudeville villain, you’re best hiring your hat. If possible, steer vintage. “Black antique silk top hats are considered the height of beauty and elegance because of their impressive shine, shape and lightness,” says Robson. “They are largely found in black, but can also be brown or grey which is often referred to as ‘white’.” Just to confuse things further.
“It should sit flat on your head, not tilted forward or backwards, around half an inch above your ear.” Then just hope your luck is as on-point as your look.