Every year we are met with the challenge of race-day dressing and fall tragically, humiliatingly, short. Time and time again we see a parade of crass, last-minute adaptations of weekday office wear that make the paddock look more like a 16-year-old’s gangster-themed formal than the elegant equestrian event it is. Men pair dark, boxy suits in heavy winter wools with jazzy white loafers and belts in a way they imagine says 'I'm a sophisticated guy who likes to party' but actually says 'I only have one suit, which I have to wear for interviews and funerals as well, and when I got dressed this morning I was thinking about John Travolta.'
Of course dressing for the races is by no means straightforward. A lack of stringent rules means that the large majority of the population simply doesn't know where to begin; for them, a handkerchief is practical rather than ornamental and they don't care whether their buttons are mother of pearl or plastic as long as they keep their shirt closed. So the question of what to wear to the races can leave people feeling uncomfortable and out of place, but it is something to be enjoyed. Let me explain.
For us, the less fair half of the species, the dress code requirements are usually straightforward. For formal eveningwear there is black tie; for the office a suit in navy or grey; and for smart casual a shirt and trousers. But a formal daytime affair has no immediate solution.
The English have a traditional solution in the morning coat – a mode so established that it is required for entrance into Ascot’s Royal Enclosure. In Australia, however, we don’t have a culture of wearing morning coats and so wearing one would only look out of place and immeasurably pompous. So the question remains: what to wear to the races?
If I could offer only one piece of advice it would be this: do not wear your work suit. A work suit must necessarily be made in a dark neutral tone, it must be cut with necessary concessions to the comfort required of day-to-day wear, and its styling must be conservative and simple. A work suit will make you look humdrum and everyday at an event that requires something above the ordinary.
Wearing a good suit is something to be enjoyed and the races is one of those rare occasions when we are given free reign to embrace this opportunity. Invest in a suit made from cotton or linen. Choose a lighter colour, like beige or blue. Wear a pocket handkerchief. If something smarter takes your fancy and departing too far from weekday apparel fills you with dread then by all means choose a dark wool but have fun with the details. Have the lapels peaked and ask for patch pockets. Choose a cloth with a subtle check or a flannel and wear loafers instead of lace-ups. Or do none of the above and explore some of the countless other options in the sartorial arsenal – whether it be a soft Neapolitan shoulder or matching a smart blazer with boldly coloured trousers.
So view our lack of more stringent guidelines on how best to clothe oneself on race day as an opportunity and a privilege rather than a web of potential pitfalls. It is an invitation to don a suit in a way that expresses rather that represses one’s character. The morning coats of Ascot may well take less thought and effort but they are most frequently cumbersome, hot and unflattering. So this season pay respects to our European friends and take full advantage of the choices they have so tragically been denied. Whether you dress in a manner that is elegant or scruffy, flamboyant or understated, dress with a sense of occasion.
Patrick Johnson is an Australian tailor and the director of P.Johnson www.pjohnson.com.au