Photography: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Taking in the packed stands of Cheltenham Racecourse on the first day of this year’s festival, it’s fair to say that the usual mix of tweed suits, blazers, flat caps and feather-tipped country hats dominated.
But since the Jockey Club’s decision to ease restrictions on clothing along its trails, there’s also been a notable increase in jeans and leather jackets, and even some tracksuits on display.
Not everyone was happy. “We have to keep the dress code to a certain standard,” she said Dawn Leadon Bolger, an Irish runner and fashionista resplendent in a pink pantsuit (with heat pads tucked underneath against the wind chill). “The jockeys and trainers are always very well dressed and I think it’s a form of respect for them to dress smartly.”
The Jockey Club says changing the dress code will make racing more “accessible and inclusive”.
Leadon-Bolger, who retrains former racehorses at her base in County Wicklow and promotes sustainable fashion, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t think being allowed to wear jeans and flip flops will encourage more people to run. I think they should look at things like ticket prices,” she said.
“You don’t have to be rich to dress well. My dress cost £30 from a boot sale. I went to the Arc de Triomphe in a dress for under ten pounds from head to toe.
Ahead of Cheltenham’s opening, the Jockey Club’s chief executive, Nevin Truesdale, said the idea was to demonstrate that racing ‘is for everyone’.
In fact, even before this year, there was no formal dress code in Cheltenham, a one-of-a-kind gathering where royalty meet up with farmers, city blokes, Irish racing enthusiasts and the lucky ones who take a sneaky day off work . The edict has long been to dress appropriately for the weather.
But Truesdale said the perception was that you had to dress a particular way. “By making the decision not to enforce dress codes at any of our 15 racecourses, we now hope to remove any ambiguity or uncertainty.”
Paul Green, 55, from Hampshire, wore a pair of smart jeans and a blazer on Tuesday. “I’ve been wearing chinos for the last 10 years or so,” he said. “But I’m more comfortable in jeans and I felt they were taking a more relaxed outlook, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
There were mixed opinions in the shopping village. Sandra Draper, of the London Fur Company, said: “People should wear whatever they want. I don’t think anyone should be told what to wear.
Jonny Beardsall, a Yorkshire Dales milliner who wears a hat made from a Hungarian wheat sack and a houndstooth patterned suit, was more hardline, calling the easing of restrictions “a terrible idea”.
“Encourage mediocrity,” he said. She has a few rules: “You shouldn’t have your shirt off if you’re over 35. It just looks like you forgot to put the covers on. And old men in skinny jeans with their butts hanging out their backs are a very bad look.”
Ali Caulfield, 58, a tax adviser from Wiltshire who wore a Beardsall faux fur hat and shiny thigh-length boots from Russell & Bromley, said he had just seen a middle-aged man in trainers. “Shocking!” he exclaimed.
He was joking, but went on to make a serious point, arguing that reducing prices (a Wednesday entrance ticket to Tattersalls enclosure is £72 and a pint of Guinness is £7.50) would be a better way to make the most inclusive festival.
Dorothy Lee, the owner of the Montana Country Collection clothing store, said that in the 20 years they’d had a booth, visitors had “slowly gotten more casual” but “people of race” still wanted to dress up. “There were more wool and tweeds and fewer sneakers and puffer jackets 20 years ago,” she said.
Three 22-year-old friends from Nottingham had followed various avenues of fashion. Jake Yeomans and Kaine Booth wore tuxedos, bow ties and sneakers. Their friend Josh Brown had opted for a tracksuit top with elegant oxfords.
Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk, from Hull, wore eye-catching matching white suits dotted with red stars. “This is the biggest show on turf. We will be celebrating the best horses on the planet racing here, so dressing smart has to be the way to go.