Hats on to Ascot’s Ladies Day

Laura Meakin wears an ornate hat on Thursday, the third day of the Royal Ascot horse racing meeting, traditionally known as Ladies Day in Ascot, England. The annual Royal Ascot horse race meeting, spread over five days, is one of the highlights of the English social season.

? This was no time for sensible shoes. Or sensible anything, for that matter.

So Georgina Owen Rafferty decided to rise to Thursday’s occasion – Ladies Day at the Royal Ascot race meeting – and have some Jimmy Choo high heels custom made to match her eye-blasting pink ensemble.

“They are incredibly comfortable,” Rafferty said before striding into the Royal Enclosure to mingle with Queen Elizabeth II and other horse-mad dignitaries on a sparkling day with long spells of bright sunshine. “They were made by the man himself, from the couture side of the business, so they fit like slippers.”

She was not the only one preening. In a world of casual Fridays, where dressing down has become a depressing fact of life, Ladies Day at Royal Ascot is the one day of the year when people who like to dress up can exact revenge on slackers who prefer track suits and leisure wear.

It’s a day tailor-made for breaking rules. No one seemed shy about ordering their first chilled glass of Bollinger champagne at 10:55 in the morning, or about placing a bet on what color hat the queen would wear, or donning a top hat that spends the rest of the year in the closet.

When the gates opened precisely at 10:30 a.m., it started a parade of men in morning suits and top hats and women in pastel-colored dresses, the most spectacular and elaborate of hats, and heels normally seen on television shows like “Sex and the City” – not at racetracks.

The queen, wearing a powder blue dress and matching hat, arrived in an open carriage shortly before racetime with her husband, Prince Philip, and other members of the royal family. She personally presented the trophies to the winner of the featured Gold Cup race.

The racetrack has a long royal connection, dating to 1711 when Queen Anne discovered the open heath near Windsor Palace and felt it might be a perfect spot for racing. The first recorded reference to Ladies Day was in 1823.

The day has evolved into a no holds barred battle for attention from the crÃme de la crÃme of British high society, those with the time and the money to spend months planning their outfits. Top designers were employed, and few seemed daunted by a Royal Ascot edict designed to limit the amount of flesh on display.

Responding to revealing fashions of recent years, race organizers – through notices picked up by the British media – asked women not to wear skirts that were too short, tops that were too skimpy, or fashions that exposed the tummy.

Spaghetti straps were definitely out – dress straps were expected to be at least one-inch wide.

While navel piercings, exposed tattoos and ankle bracelets were not addressed, there was a slightly tongue in cheek advisory that warned about fake tans and suggested that women wear outfits that covered their underwear, while men were told to make sure their zippers were done up to avoid a “schoolboy error” that might ruin their whole outfit.

The unusual fashion edicts were an attempt to keep the trend toward too-small tops, exposed bras and tiny skirts from migrating from the streets of London into the royal enclosure where the queen – a devoted fan of horse racing – entertains each year.