I confess, I’m a little afraid of horses. They have such big, blunt teeth, don’t they?
Yet here I am at the Cheltenham Festival, out and about with Britain’s equine elite. Needless to say, I’m not actually here for the racing.
You see, I may not have a tip for the Champion Hurdle, but they’re hip and there’s plenty to do on the UK event circuit beyond the obvious tack. Cheltenham’s aesthetic, dubbed ‘rural fashion’ by regulars, is not influenced by mainstream fashion in the slightest.
The look is unique and particularly distinct from that of other encounters. At Royal Ascot, the scene can look a bit like a sweet shop, its audience bathed in pastels and fruity colours. In Cheltenham, the color du jour is glorious mud.
A smart brown-green coat should be the focal point of any onlooker’s outfit – trench coats, capes, and blazers are all permissible. Once your outerwear is secured, it’s simply a case of accessorizing with other mud-colored pieces: suede boots, a top-handled bag, and a pheasant-feather beanie will complete the look perfectly, and most importantly, feel practical in the uncertain. March weather.
As a Londoner, it’s not my usual bag (literally, I borrowed the whole dress) but I went all out for my visit. While my husband raises an eyebrow at this pony look before he leaves the house, I feel at home among the herd of tweeds and tinplates departing Paddington station.
Upon arriving at Prestbury Park, which has been the home of racing in Cheltenham since the 1900s, I am thoroughly immersed. The new generation of slick (with big teeth, by the way) equestrian patrons spans ITV racing queen Rosie Tapner and Francesca Cumani all the way to royal royalty Zara Tindall.
There’s also a brilliant amount of faux country humbug going on. Those like me who are in it for the day — if Matt Hancock, Gareth Gates, Carol Vorderman and the cast of Love Island can pull on a herringbone jacket and fit, surely anyone can?
Over the past 10 years, as celebrities have taken over the Cotswolds, Cheltenham has become an opportunity for fashion-conscious country types to show off a different category of glamour; the aforementioned “rural vogue”.
In this respect, Cheltenham are now a match for Ascot.
The dress code is so distinct that everyone knows exactly what to wear for the occasion. Looking around the stands, I see that everyone in attendance sees match days as an opportunity to dress up. The Jockey Club’s easing of rules for 2023 (including allowing jeans and trainers) in the name of “democratization” hasn’t deterred anyone when it comes to styling.
“It’s not about what you spend, it’s about enjoying a sense of occasion,” one local who visits every year tells me. True snobs wear the same clothes every year – it’s almost a boast to say that if your jacket smells a little musty, it’s because it’s been in the family for generations.
I talk to younger men and women who have borrowed from their parents and chat in the stands with middle-aged people wearing garments they bought at the festival decades ago and still love now, because the look is timeless.
For those who don’t have something vintage in their wardrobe, there are plenty of new options to shop for as well.
In recent years Cheltenham Shopping Village has evolved into something of a shopping destination, as integral to the experience as betting and a sizzling lunch at Alberta’s Run. Some 58 country-focused British companies (including fashion labels Troy London and Dubarry, plus interiors specialists such as pheasant-feather artist Clare Brownlow) set out to attract the 470,000 attendees over the four-day event.
What they sell isn’t cheap – it’s quality woolen clothing and suede boots and bags, mostly made in England. But here they found their audience; In 2022, on average, every visitor to Cheltenham lost a whopping £697 during their visit.
Holland Cooper has the benchmark in the village: an area of 108 square meters teeming with guests between races. She sells many of her £1,200 trench coats, but knitwear and accessories are also moving fast.
“Starting at £35, we have something for every budget,” says founder Jade Holland Cooper proudly.
His Cheltenham-based label is one of several new British brands to make a fortune by betting on a new interest in the heritage look. Holland Cooper launched his business on the events circuit in 2011, with a stall selling tweed miniskirts at the Badminton Horse Trials.
In 2022 it had sales of £22.7 million. Clients book their personal styling appointments at its flagship Charlton Kings boutique as early as January to ensure they are ready for race day. For some niche retailers, Cheltenham is one of the most profitable events of the year.
“We see a huge increase in revenue in March, which isn’t far behind the holiday season,” explains Alice Leet-Cook, co-founder of millinery brand Hicks & Brown. Leet-Cook’s feathered caps are, in fact, everywhere in the stands. When the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh become valued clients, word quickly spreads among the country cliques.
“Seventy per cent of the products we sell in Cheltenham are [Kate’s] Suffolk Fedora, priced at £99. Norfolk-based brand Fairfax & Favor occupies another major estate plot in Cheltenham, exactly a decade since it was founded by Marcus Fairfax Fountaine and Felix Favor Parker as a stall selling shoes at the Holkham Country Fair.
“Cheltenham offers shoppers an incredible opportunity to see our clothes on ‘real models’ walking the racecourse and get inspired,” Parker explains as he explains why being caught in the moment makes people want to shop locally.
“Last year we placed around 500 orders in Cheltenham, with an average order value of £170. Our Regina boots are our hero product, along with our boot tassels.
Many brands launch new products exclusively in Cheltenham – Fairfax & Favor is selling its new outerwear here for the first time. Carol Vorderman wore a Sienna cape on Wednesday that we can assume she purchased at the brand’s booth on Tuesday.
Inspired to shop? So are the Americans.
National and international interest in traditional country style is at an all-time high. In 2022, Fairfax & Favor made its debut at the Kentucky Horse Trials, after noticing increased demand from the United States.
“British country heritage style is so popular around the world,” says Parker.
“When we opened stores in places like Stow-in-the-Wold and Helmsley, we thought we were reaching a new local audience. And we did. But we underestimated how popular quintessentially British villages and historic buildings are as hotspots for international tourists.”
For anyone who wants to play the part, native or tourist, Fairfax & Favor, Hicks & Brown and others are ready to offer the right clothes for the event.
So could they successfully prepare me to blend in? I realized, too late, that I should have borrowed this brown coat. But apparently it was my shiny, pointed black boots that really gave me away.
“Tan suede with rounded toes and a block heel would be more Cheltenham,” one regular customer advised me. Better luck next year then.