When attending most sporting events, deciding what clothes to wear is far from an important decision. Many venues will have no rules on what you can wear so you are virtually free to choose anything you like. Of course, there can be certain items best avoided like wearing the away team’s shirt in the home end at a football match, but there will be no formal dress code as such when attending most sporting events.
Horse racing is rather different though as it can often feel like a social occasion and sporting event rolled into one. Many visitors are not purely interested in watching the horses compete, rather they want to drink and chat with friends, perhaps while showing off some new clothes. So, not only do people voluntarily dress up for the occasion but in some instances formal dress codes apply. It is always good to be aware of what these are because failure to adhere to them could see you denied entry to parts of the course, or potentially all of it.
Raceday Attire Considerations
Before deciding what you will wear to any racecourse, there are four key factors you will want to consider beforehand. Once you have given each of these some thought, then you will be in the perfect position to select the right outfit for the occasion.
1. Time Of Year
The timing of the meeting is important for two reasons. For people interested in fashion it is important because styles change depending on what time of year it is. Even with all other factors the same, a typical winter outfit at Ascot will be distinctly different to a summer outfit. As well as factoring in seasonal trends, you have the temperature differences too. Across the winter, colder temperatures and the greater potential for rain or even snow mean jackets/coats with trousers are very much the norm. A smart scarf would certainly not look out of place either. It is important to wrap up for these winter meetings because there can be limited protection from the wind sweeping across the racecourse. As you will likely be standing still for long periods too, it is easy to become cold quickly without the right attire.
In warmer months, the layers come off and this opens up a lot more possibilities, especially for the ladies. This not only applies to clothing but footwear too. Stiletto heels or similar are often not practical for winter or spring meetings due to the softness of the grass. Although racegoers will not spend much time on turf, many racecourse car parks are just a grassy field. If you attempt to walk across these in some thin heels there is a very good chance they could get stuck.
2. The Weather
Although this is linked to the point above, it is more important to dress for the weather than for the season. There are definite ‘summer’ or ‘spring’ styles but these may have to be abandoned if the weather is not very seasonal. The main thing to look out for, as you no doubt will have guessed, is rain. Always check the forecast just before you set off because the older the forecast is, the more unreliable it is going to be. If the forecast indicates that rain is a fair possibility for later in the day then dress accordingly, or take an umbrella with you. You can always leave unneeded layers or brollies in a cloakroom, if there is one available, so you are not forced to carry them around.
Another important consideration is wind. If it is expected to be a blustery meeting, you will really notice it when standing beside a large field. Even if the day is relatively warm, often the wind chill means that a shirt or dress will not suffice by itself. You may also want to think hard about any headwear choices on a windy afternoon too as the last thing you want is for something to fly off your head. The other element to consider is the amount of sunshine you might be exposed to. For those that burn easily, it may be wise to have shoulders covered up on a sunny day. A hat can also be a great way of keeping your face/neck from burning, but in a fashionable way.
3. The Racecourse/Enclosure Dress Code
Almost all racecourses make it clear what their dress code is on their main website. In some cases, there may be no formal dress code at all, but this does not mean anything goes. Even easy-going venues will not let you in with a bare chest or anything likely to cause offence while many are not keen on football shirts or other sportswear. Other items of clothing you may find on a prohibited list include the likes of casual shorts, sandals, flip flops and ripped denim. Although quite fashionable in some circles, ripped or torn denim is generally viewed extremely dimly by racecourses and is frequently not allowed.
Smaller racecourses may just have one general policy but there are those that will have dress codes for specific ticket types or enclosures. As a largely reliable rule, the more expensive the ticket, the greater the dress code requirements. Again, this is something that should be laid out clearly by racecourses so you should not have to worry about unknowingly under-dressing. Most of the specific rules are typically aimed at men, with requirements such as a tie, jacket or tailored trousers often being specified for the higher-end enclosures at the biggest meetings. As women’s outfits vary much more, there is a bit more judgement required for these but you may read guidance such as ‘wedding guest attire’, which you can interpret as you see fit (and hope it ticks the right boxes for the staff on the door).
4. Special Events
Every racecourse will have some ‘highlight’ fixtures on its annual calendar. These can be premium meetings because they feature high-quality racing and/or they are big social occasions. A classic example of a big social occasion is a Ladies Day, or Ladies Evening meeting. These often see prizes handed out for the best-dressed lady or ladies, and sometimes there are extra rewards up for grabs for things such as the best hat/fascinator. Whether prizes or no prizes though, these meetings provide people with the perfect excuse to put something especially extravagant on. They will seem quite outdated concepts to many people given that they are essentially offering rewards for women to dress up and make themselves look as well-dressed as possible, but they retain a high level of popularity so don’t appear to be go away anytime soon.
Although a ‘Ladies’ fixture is the most common type of special meeting from a clothing perspective, it is not the only one. Some racecourse might have days that focus on headwear or have a Gentlemen’s day, again with prizes on offer for the smartest dressed gents. You can also have some entire festivals that are glamorous rather than just individual days, for example Royal Ascot, which comes with a very detailed dress code.
While Royal Ascot is the peak of racecourse style and fashion, full of expensive garments and designer names, not all meetings are necessarily about dressing up. To give you one example, as Christmas approaches some racecourse will run a fun ‘Christmas jumper’ meeting. For these the focus is more on festive cheesiness rather than looking your very best so you can leave the designer names at home.
What To Wear in Different Seasons
Having covered the four key clothing considerations, it is now time to focus more on the specifics. If you follow the dress code specified by the course you cannot go badly wrong but there are certain items of clothing that will see you fit in with the crowd more than others.
Smart casual is very much the standard for racecourses, aside from the more premium enclosures or hospitality areas where you may need to dress smart. In all other areas though you will find most people rock up in something that would be considered smart casual. There will always be some visitors in more casual attire so there is no obligation to dress up should you not wish to, as long as you stay within the bounds of the dress code.
I general, summer meetings will bring warmer weather which should definitely be a consideration for a full day out at the races. Below we have some examples of what both men and women could wear at the course.
Light colours are often the preference in the summer, partly as they will absorb less heat from the sun. Yellows, whites, pinks, or simply light shades of dark blue or green are common. Midi dresses can be a popular choice as they provide a great deal of ventilation and they often look great when flowing in a gentle breeze. Although the temptation might be on a warm day to expose a lot of skin, outfits should remain fairly ‘elegant’. This means avoiding any very short skirts, for example, or anything with an extremely plunging neckline.
Exposed shoulders are perfectly acceptable, and indeed prove quite popular, but just be careful of the sunburn risk. With regards to hats and fascinators, these can be popular, especially at Ladies Day meetings, but are seldom compulsory so do not worry if you are not a big fan. As for footwear, you may need to strike a balance between style and comfort as you will be on your feet for at least five hours or so. Open or peep-toe heels are common, partly due to their added breathability while wedges can provide some additional comfort.
A pair of smart trousers and a tucked-in shirt are very much standard for the gents. You can leave the tie at home and undo your top button to prevent things from getting too stuffy under your chin. A light blazer can also help complete the look although if it’s particularly toasty you can leave this too. For footwear, brogues are common although these are not especially summery so boat shoes or loafers might be a better pick if available, both of which can be worn sockless. If wanting to wear something a little more casual, chinos or even smart shorts would not look out of place.
Autumn and winter in the UK brings cold and often very wet weather. Racecourses tend to be fairly exposed, leaving you open to the elements when outside watching the races or exploring the venue. Below are some suggestions for suitable attire.
The main focus for ladies should just be keeping most skin covered, just to stave off the cold. If it is not overly chilly one option would be to combine a maxi dress with a waist-height jacket. Alternatively, a shorter dress or skirt would work if combined with a thick pair of tights. A jumpsuit combined with a jacket/coat is another popular option so there are a few possibilities to work with. Regarding footwear, as mentioned before, we would advise against thin heels as these are liable to get caught in the soft ground. Some form of boot, whether heeled or flat, is best for offering winter protection.
This applies to the gents and to the ladies but slipping a pair of gloves in your pocket is always a sensible move for any winter meeting. Hands can get cold very quickly while outside and you do not want them frozen when collecting your cash from the bookies.
You will need a few layers when attending racing in the winter months. If it is not bitterly cold you may get away win a shirt, waistcoats and a jacket. For other meetings though you will want to bring a smart coat which can often look good with a scarf. Tweed jackets are also common picks during the jumps season for that fully authentic racing look. If you do want something to keep your head warm, you will find some trilbies or caps in attendance but ultimately it does not matter too much.
Moving to the other end of the body, something like derby shoes are a good pick. Smart, reasonably comfortable and quite waterproof, they are a solid winter shoe option.