Spring-racing fashion can be an incredible reflection of a society at a moment in time.

Take our latest spring-racing-themed fashion shoot, by photographer Nick Blair and stylist Sarah Banger. Their looks show a shift away from traditionally lavish headwear, instead substituting it for a fine gold-wreath headband, or an elegant, white straw boater. Instead of body-hugging dresses, we’re seeing more comfortable, masculine structures – loose pinstriped suits and high-waisted culottes.

Taken from Australian newspaper archives, here are some colourful and telling moments in our early Spring Racing Carnival history, particularly around the Caulfield Cup, that showcase some remarkable evolutions in fashion.

My hat is bigger than your hat

In 1893, just over a decade since the Caulfield Cup’s inception, Melbourne Leader columnist “Iris” declared: “Large hats were very much en evidence at the Caulfield races”. They were, “Worn far back on the head, and with few exceptions were decked with flowers, principally roses”.

Although, over the course of the day, “gales of wind and torrents of rain alternated with gleams of sunshine in such delightful uncertainty” (nothing’s changed with Melbourne’s weather, then), the sunny moments drew the women on to the lawn to reveal bright shades, elaborate satin capes, puffed sleeves and laced bonnets.

The left sketch shows the "shape and style most in vogue", while the right sketch "represents one of the charming little close-fitting Marie Stuart bonnets which are worn so far back on the head". From the Melbourne Leader, October 28, 1893.

Where, oh, where are the small hats?

In 1906 there was apparently supposed to be an influx of tiny hats. But alas, where were all the tiny hats?

Melbourne’s Punch reported on the disappointing no-show of miniature hats: “The millinery at Caulfield was very dainty, but where, oh, where was the small hat with which the world of fashion threatened to be inundated? Nowhere! The medium-sized hat was worn by the best people, and the floral toque, having had its day, has gone into the limbo of forgotten fashions.”

A quite unbecoming hat

One year on, in 1907, had the tiny hats arrived? We’re not sure. What we do know is this Punch writer could not wait for cloche hats (those bell-shaped, head-hugging ones that hit their peak with flappers in the 1920s) to disappear already.

“The cloche hat and helmet-like shape, with its length of brim and weight of trimming at the back, will never be graceful, and is seldom becoming. The small cloche hat is the only exception: and few of these were worn.”

Little did the writer know that those unbecoming hats were just getting started.

Black is the new black

You cannot, will not, stop a Melbourne woman from wearing black. Not 100 years ago, and not now.

In 1909, a very underwhelmed gossip writer for Melbourne’s weekly Table Talk social magazine declared the fashions of that year’s Caulfield Cup to be disappointing.

Noting that, “The tussore coat and skirt, with black fixings, in particular was prominent,” the writer went on to complain about “the predilection that Melbourne women have for following one mode. Convince them a certain garment or hat is to be the thing, and they all rush it, until it is done to death.”

The almost-audibly-yawning columnist then went on to protest a most “eye-paining” yellow – which goes to show you can’t really win.

A moment of animal rights in fashion

An issue of the Melbourne Leader from 1915 revealed an interesting glimpse of an emerging consciousness about wearing animals for fashion, against the backdrop of the First World War.

After an obligatory grumble about the weather (“Like a spoiled child, the weather did not know what it wanted to do, and apparently it decided to do nothing properly”), the writer tells this short, but revealing, anecdote:

“The wife of one of our most distinguished generals wore a magnificent bird of Paradise in the hat, but although it was exceedingly beautiful, the general comment was that the speaker would not care to wear it herself – the times were against the slaughter of birds when men were killing each other so horribly. Somehow the ruthless slaughter of nature’s greatest creation has turned women against unnecessary killing of lower forms of life. We are changing with changing times.”

A (bare) arms race

In 1934, the Melbourne Cup added a new demand to the dress code for gloves to be longer than usual, due to the fact that “many dresses and coats have sleeves “shrunk” several inches above the wrist”. Ladies gloves were required to cover the expanse of bare arm.

'Freak hats' at the Caulfield Cup. From The Mail, October 27, 1934

Fur the love of fashion

Before you judge: remember the 1930s was a different time. Showing up anywhere now with a fox fur will likely get your picture splashed around the internet. Owning a fur in those days was a marker of taste and wealth.

In 1935, the Glen Innes Examiner noted, “a movement away from silver fox” in that year – and they weren’t talking about older gentlemen. “One cape was of squirrel allied with ermine, another of beige fox, many of marmot and mole.”

Who likes short skirts?

In 1949, despite the “most disappointing weather” (again?), the colour of the season was grey, particularly in the form of ladies’ suits, which, “in many cases combined with yellow and lime”.

Also making headlines were the shorter skirts, which had noticeably risen up the calf that season.

A 1953 issue of The Age also commented on skirt lengths, which that year “varied considerably”. While most hems remained at the “always-smart mid-calf length”, “one or two were seen approaching the just-below-the-knee length with which Dior startled the fashion world at his last collection”.

The "hot" hat

Hat crime is an issue that needs our attention. In 1963, The Canberra Times reported a most disturbing crime on the field:

“Hats are always a point of fashion on Caulfield Cup Day. One particular hat caught Miss Rhonda Cockram’s attention – it was hers – on another woman. It had been stolen seven months earlier from a car in Beaumaris. The woman also wore a coat which had disappeared with the hat.”

The narrative continues to reveal that Miss Cockram and three friends followed the wearer of the “hot” hat and coat and finally hailed a policeman who questioned the woman. Police later raided a house in Sandringham after questioning a man and recovered £200 of allegedly stolen clothing.

The Spring Racing Carnival is on now and celebrated across Victoria. Visit springracingcarnival.com.au for details and tickets for all the race days. You can also find millinery tips, fashion inspiration, pre- and post-race entertainment ideas and more.

This article is presented by Spring Racing Carnival.