Dressing For Royal Ascot
Royal Ascot is arguably the last race meeting in the world where formal day dress is required for those fortunate enough to be accredited to the Royal Enclosure.
Founded by Queen Anne in 1711, Ascot has been the glass of masculine fashion for the tailors and makers of gentlemen’s requisites on Savile Row and in St James’s since George III erected a marquee in 1808, presenting the royal family and their guests with strict codes of dress.
Today, formal men’s dress at the Royal Meeting is as stringent as it was in 1914 and remains as it was a century ago: namely, black or grey morning tails, waistcoat, shirt, tie and top hat. However, within the rules men have licence to be as flamboyant, if not as extreme, as the late great Mrs Shilling - the Ascot Mascot - whose sky-scraping hats made by her son David caused applause and outrage in equal measure.
Contrary to Sir Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian ‘Ascot scene’ in the film My Fair Lady, where all the chaps in the Royal Enclosure wore dove grey morning coats, the grey three-piece was not popularised until the 20s, when Turnbull & Asser icon the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) broke with protocol and favoured grey rather than black. The Prince fell foul of his father George V when he once wore grey, forgetting the court was in mourning for a distant royal relative. His tailor Scholte made a black morning coat overnight in time for the royal carriage procession the next day.
Black morning tails still rule in the Royal Enclosure, though puppy tooth trousers rather than the traditional black and grey pinstripe are the rage. Sheikh Mohammad and the present Prince of Wales still wear grey three-piece morning suits and antique black silk top hats: a preference the Queen has made known. The grey felt topper with black hatband first appeared in 1901 at ‘Black Ascot’ to mark mourning for Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, this style tends to look hired and is frowned upon in the Enclosure. James Lock & Co on St James’s Street still sells restored antique black silk toppers for a four-figure sum.
Should you wish to see how the racing establishment dresses for Ascot, always look at the Owners and Trainers in the Parade Ring.
Loud colours are strictly discouraged and cravats are considered an aberration. Pastels and pale colours rule for shirts and waistcoats. These should be mismatched to complement each other. Plain wool or linen waistcoats looks so much smarter than patterned silk. For shirts, white collars and French cuffs look sharpest, with the body of the garment a pale base colour or a subtle pinstripe in powder pink, ice blue, lavender or lemon. Simply wearing a white shirt looks lazy. Commissing Mr Atanasias at Turnbull & Asser’s bespoke shop to cut a stud collar shirt to be worn with a starched detachable collar sorts the men from the boys. Sir Henry Cecil, the late racehorse trainer who was always Best In Show at Royal Ascot, favoured the stiff, starched collar.
Ties can certainly be more adventurous at the Royal Meeting, though anything remotely novelty is to be discouraged as are striped ties should you not be a member of a gentlemen’s club or a regiment. Dotty silk ties are entirely appropriate and look their best when given a kick with a pearl tie stud or antique tiepin. Pocket squares should preferably be linen or cotton rather than silk, and knee-length socks are always amusing in pale colours to contrast with the regulation shoe: a black leather cap-toed Oxford or a Chelsea boot.
Though you won’t see a gentleman’s braces, it is always smart to ask your tailor to cut brace-top trousers for Royal Ascot and to order an eye-popping colour in felt or watered silk. Tailcoats are never removed in the Royal Enclosure, but top hats are when in a marquee or a private box. Those who have been coming to Royal Ascot for generations tend to dress in a sober fashion on Ladies Day (Thursday), the received wisdom being that the ladies must be allowed to shine. The chicest waistcoat for Ladies Day is black with white Marcella slips.
Ascot Week (Tuesday 14th to Saturday 18th) traditionally has four seasons of weather in five days, hence an umbrella being as fundamental a piece of kit as binoculars. T&A’s black umbrella with chestnut crook is a smart choice and serves as an excellent swagger stick when furled. A note on jewellery: apart from a family ring on the small finger, a wedding ring, tie stud and cufflinks, jewellery is not worn to excess by men. You don’t tend to see silver in the Royal Enclosure. Yellow gold is the form as is the pocket watch with chain rather than a flash oligarchical wristwatch. Breaking the rules is not only frowned upon - it will deny you entrance to the Enclosure. Conforming, but with a little flair, is always the winning ticket.