The day Liz Jones joined Ascot's style Stasi: From the classy to the somewhat brassy, the ladies who got past the style policeRacecourse's fashion overseers look out for cleavage and spaghetti straps
06:44 GMT, 22 June 2012
Feeling a little like a security guard at Heathrow Airport, I stand outside the entrance to Royal Ascot.
Instead of asking women young and old whether their bag contained any sharp objects, I was asking whether or not a hat was a handspan across, whether the strap on a dress was indeed less than one inch wide, and rummaging under jackets to see whether a dress was strapless.
Yesterday, I spent Ladies Day alongside the racecourse’s Fashion Police: young women wearing purple skirt suits and wielding large wicker baskets stuffed with sartorial quick-fixes.
Their badges read ‘Dress Code Assistant’, but they might as well have borne the name of formidable Vogue editor Anna Wintour, so inscrutable were they about who was in, and who was out.
Pretty as a picture: Student Alice Linley, 20, shone in a 40 Asos dress and Next shoes, while Katherine Jenkins impressed the style police but could have done with some colour
Royal Ascot has this week been enforcing a strict new dress code. ‘A day at Ascot is very special, and dressing accordingly is part of the experience,’ reads the official programme.
For Royal Enclosure badge-wearers, the code is as follows: no skirt shorter than just above the knee, and a proper hat, with a base of four inches or more. For all racegoers, meaning those in the grandstand, too, the new rules means no shorts, no sheer, and no narrow or sheer straps.
A hat, headpiece or fascinator must be worn at all times. Men in the Royal Enclosure must wear black or grey morning dress with a waistcoat and tie (no cravats), black or grey top hat, and black shoes.
Every ticket buyer had received a style guide, but still, confusion reigned at the entrance.
Enforcing the ‘no strapless’ rule proved the most tricky. The rulebook states no strapless dresses will be allowed, even if worn under a jacket or coat. This involved lots of rather strange peeking under jackets to check whether straps were present.
Most took the intrusion in good spirit. Some, though, did not.
Passing the test: Essex girl Amy Childs, left, actually read the style guide but there were too many TOWIE-inspired platforms and fake tanned cleavage
‘But I’m wearing a summer coat over my strapless dress,’ one woman wailed. ‘It’s Bottega Veneta! Does cost mean nothing to you people’
I found, in my day with the Dress Code Assistants, that, actually, despite their Mary Poppins demeanour, they were not as strict as me. I almost rugby-tackled a woman in an asymmetric dress, thinking an exposed, meaty, sunburned shoulder just as bad, if not worse, than fine straps. But no, she was waved through.
Any woman who arrived bareheaded or showing her bra straps was furnished with a hat, fascinator or pashmina from the wicker baskets. As any fashionista worth her Prada discount card knows, pashminas are way too Eighties; I’d have banned these, too.
There were no tape-measures inside those baskets, either, which meant far too many women wore skirts that were not the recommended length — falling just above the knee or longer.
I also think bare shoulders are far less offensive than brown, fake-tanned chubby thighs with their soul mate: blistered ankles.
The reason for the 2.5cm dress strap rule is so it hides a bra strap underneath, but there is no rule requiring women to wear a bra: I saw many, many nipples, given the cold snap, clearly discernible through thin fabric.
And my definition of ‘sheer’ differed from the official one. Many women wore lace dresses, a big trend this summer, but this was deemed acceptable. There are holes in the style guide, as well as these dresses.
An Ascot fashion spokesperson told me the leniency is because this is the first season for the rules: expect far more rigour next year. This year, skirt length, even in the Royal Enclosure, is a moveable feast. How so
‘Well, if the wearer is stylish, then we do waive the rule,’ said the spokeswoman. An example was Ester Dohnalova, a personal trainer wearing a print dress from Zara that clearly ended around her kidneys. She looked great, but I wondered whether her black lipstick was suitable.
‘We can’t tell women what make-up to wear,’ said the spokeswoman. ‘We can’t have a sign saying: “No tattoos.”’
But if you can measure the span of a hat, why not the bat of an eyelash The clear message is: if you are young and beautiful, you can pretty much get away with anything. If you are old or overweight, then there is absolutely no chance of parole.
I wondered, too, if the new rules were a bit snooty but, when I grilled very chic young women on their outfits, I found they were almost always wearing High Street. One of my best-dressed of the day was 20-year-old student Alice Linley, who wore a navy dress from Asos costing 40, Next shoes and a home-made hat.
‘The code is great because it has made everyone smarter. It’s very rare to dress as I do at my age. But I like it: it’s not overly sexualised or girly,’ she said.
While, like Alice, most female race goers welcomed the new rules, some found them problematical. One young woman, Sophie, an estate agent, told me that as she is tall, no dress on the High Street is long enough.
The code is great because it has made
everyone smarter. It’s very rare to dress as I do at my age. But I like
it: it’s not overly sexualised or girly
– ALICE LINLEY, STUDENT
Another, Carly Green, a 32-year-old childcare worker, was stopped at the entrance to be told the spaghetti strap of her print Coast dress was against the rules. She was quite upset. ‘I didn’t see anything in the rules about straps, or I wouldn’t have chosen this dress,’ she said. She was given a pashmina to cover her shame.
A little bit of the English eccentricity of the day had been lost, though. Natalie Haverstock is a balloon artist who has been coming to Ascot for the past four years.
‘Everyone knows me here,’ she said. ‘But this year, I was stopped by the women in purple and told I was breaking the code. I offered to check in my balloon hat, but they still wouldn’t let me in. It’s the end of an era.’
Despite this new crackdown, there were still too many oversized novelty hats: the Olympic flame, football pitch and lemon cupcake really don’t sit well with Royal Ascot and the presence of the Queen.
But on the whole it was a sea of tastefulness that greeted Her Majesty, dressed in mint, rather than the staggering mess of brown midriffs and flashes of red Louboutin soles you see at Aintree.
This was the first time I have ever worn a hat — silver straw, by Vivien Sheriff, who sold 500 hats in one week — and it made me feel curiously festive. All the women I spoke to mentioned the ‘Kate Middleton effect’.
‘She has made us all want to be more ladylike,’ said Alice Linley.
I think Royal Ascot’s fashion police could take things much further next year. As well as extravagant false eyelashes, nipples and tattoos, let’s ban bare arms, wedges, French pedicured toes, cleavage, scuffed handbags, VPL, fake tan and sequins.
And why restrict it to Ascot Let’s roll out a row of prim young women in purple outside shopping malls and office blocks the length and breadth of the land. In fact, let them take over the world…