The Only Way Is Ascot
No hat, no entrance. Such are the rules of the Royal Ascot, the U.K.’s most prestigious horse race, sartorially and otherwise, and the functional English equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. Founded in 1711 by Queen Anne, the meet, which runs from June 19-23, attracts everyone from Liz Hurley to the Royals for five days of celebration, steeds, and, of course, spectacular headgear. “I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams. It’s sort of like heaven!” says up-and-coming English milliner Noel Stewart, who, along with Piers Atkinson, Charlie Le Mindu, J. Smith Esquire, and William Chambers, will showcase his hats at the races in the Stephen Jones-curated Headonism exhibition, sponsored by the Royal Ascot and the British Fashion Council. “It’s the highlight of a milliner’s year and crucially important from a business standpoint. It’s Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything else all rolled into one!” adds Jones, who, in addition to crafting a slew of Ascot hats, is in the midst of creating headpieces for Raf Simons’ debut Dior Couture show.
However, due to a few subpar skin-baring ensembles from years past, Ascot has tightened up its 2012 dress code. Fascinators have been banned in the Royal Enclosure, the race’s most exclusive viewing section (according to Ascot, they’re a “convenient way out” and not in line with formal daywear), and ladies must wear headpieces no smaller than four inches in diameter, as well as day dresses of “modest length” whose straps are at least one inch wide. (The powers that be have suggested the look at left as an example of race-appropriate garb: dress by Nicholas Oakwell, shoes by Bally, and hat by Stephen Jones.) Gents are required to turn up in a top hat and tails. “The new rules are about being more ‘English summer party’ than ‘pop star fleshy,’ ” says Atkinson, who designed a special Racing Collection (below), each hat from which adheres to Ascot’s regulations. His strawberries-and-cream-inspired toppers will be on sale at his pop-up shop at London’s Saint Martins Lane Hotel, open from today until the end of June.
“I think they make complete sense,” says Jones of the rules. “The races are all about extravagance and having fun. But it’s a daytime occasion, not a cocktail party. And it’s probably pouring down with rain!” While some may feel the restrictions are a bit stuffy, the above-mentioned milliners assert that the guidelines will encourage racegoers to get creative. Jones adds, “The great thing about Ascot and about hats is, no matter what you do in your day-to-day life, you can put on a hat and you can be a princess.”