When you’re in the train station and see lots of women wearing fancy hats and men in top hats and tails, it can mean only one thing: It’s time for the Royal Ascot horse races.
Royal Ascot is the most important horse race in the UK. It’s held every year over five days in June at the race course near Windsor. It’s a favorite with the Royals who attend regularly. The Queen arrives at 2:00 riding along part of the track in her royal, horse-drawn carriage before the race begins.
This race has been associated with the Royals since it was first started in 1711 by Queen Anne. The story goes that one day she was taking a ride, viewing her kingdom around Windsor Castle when she came upon a stretch of land that looked just perfect for horse racing. She established the first race with a prize of 100 guineas.
Queen Anne put the guards who had been arranging hunts for her in charge of royal protection and crowd control at the race. Their official name was Yoemen Prickers. This was because they were armed with sharp pikes that they used to clear people off the race track. They no longer poke people with sharp sticks and today they are known as the Greencoats because of their green velvet suits.
One legend says that Queen Anne had ordered lots of green velvet to have curtains made for Windsor Castle. After all the castle windows were covered, there was still a lot of fabric left over. Being a thrifty monarch, Queen Anne decided to use it to have suits made for her Yoemen Prickers.
With the Royals involved it was always a fancy affair, and it has stayed that way. The Royal Ascot seems to be as much about fashion as it is about racing – and the ladies’ hats steal the show. There is more news coverage about who wore what than who won what. It’s a British tradition and everyone participating is expected to dress the part.
The Royal Enclosure
The dress code (and hat code) varies slightly depending on your seating area. Over time the seating has been divided into four enclosures: Royal, Queen Anne, Village, and Windsor Enclosures – each with its own dress code.
The Royal Enclosure was originally for the Royal Family and their friends. Through the years, the membership required to enter the Royal Enclosure has broadened. Membership is by invitation only and new members must be sponsored by someone who has attended in the Royal Enclosure for at least four years.
Men must dress in either black or grey morning suits and a black or grey top hat. Women should dress in formal day-wear and hats are obligatory – either a full hat or something with a solid base of at least four inches in diameter.
Queen Anne and Village
The next two enclosures are the Queen Anne (named after the Queen who started it all) and the Village. In these two, the dress code for women is basically the same, except that hats can be replaced by fascinators if desired. A fascinator is a headband or comb decorated with feathers, flowers, etc. Men can wear a regular suit and tie and hats for them are optional.
The fourth enclosure is the Windsor which is very relaxed and has no dress code – although people are still encouraged to dress up.
If you can’t make it to the Royal Ascot race, there are plenty of smaller races and other events at Ascot throughout the year.
This year, I just giggled a bit at the people in funny hats getting on the train, but next year, who knows, I might just join them…
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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Images: Images 2 and 4 are from the Ascot website the others are mine.