Melbourne Cup – Evolving Fashions on the Field 150 Years +

Costume encompasses all that we wear, including objects for personal adornment such as jewellery, hats, gloves, shoes, stockings and other accessories.

All the various aspects of costume we wear individually and collectively have an interesting history. Without a doubt their evolving style reflects our personalities, our social growth and cultural development.

Over the years since the Melbourne Cup was first founded in 1861, it has gradually become the iconic horse race in Australia. It is the one that stops the Australian nation well and truly in its tracks.

Today after 50 years since a competition to find the best dressed woman on race day emerged, Fashions on the Field have become an important aspect of national Spring Racing Carnivals in Australia. They are helping to attract major sponsors and to provide jobs for hundreds and thousands of people.

In Melbourne where I live and where the annual horse race the Melbourne Cup is run, the two major department stores David Jones and Myer deck themselves out in all sorts of costume, including some exciting and eccentric fashionable head attire for women to consider wearing to the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

From fascinators to floral fantasies, whether black and white or the brightest of colours, the choice in both size and style is completely amazing. Fashion Elixir‘s Jo Bayley has covered that aspect of costume in her story ‘Win the Hat Race for the Melbourne Cup’

Detail: The Lawn at Flemington on Melbourne Cup Day c1889 by Carl Kahler, courtesy National Library of Australia

The first Melbourne Cup was run at Flemington Racecourse in 1861 and right from the start the complete costume women wore became a subject of interest for journalists and the public alike.

This didn’t abate over the century following, instead their curiousity only increased as changes in society happened and two World Wars came and went.

Described in The Bulletin as ‘a veritable page in the history of Australia’, today in our libraries there are countless photographs of a century or more of fashionable men and women over that time, strolling side by side and arm in arm, across lush green racecourse lawns where a profusion of flowers also abounded.

In 1861 a contemporary description in ‘The Age’ newspaper of the event noted; A carnival atmosphere prevailed with women in bonnets and full skirts, men in beaver hats and frock coats. Sideshow booths with roulette stands, fortune-tellers, performing monkeys, ‘giants’ and bearded ladies entertained the crowds, and publicans did a roaring trade. The event drew spectators from all parts: in the crowd there were men wearing cabbage-tree hats and sporting bushy beards; settlers in moleskins, or leggings and boots; and diggers from Ballarat who stood out in their red shirts.

Ever since the second half of the eighteenth century in Europe, England and America people who became a ‘society’ rather than a class celebrated their new found freedom, creativity and inventiveness by creating the most amazing costume.

Well dressed patrons simply did not ‘go out’ or attend racecourse whether they were at Royal Ascot in England or at the Kentucky Derby in America or the Melbourne Cup in Australia without having their arms, their legs and their heads covered, a trend that applied both to men and women for centuries.

By the Edwardian era at the beginning of the 20th century everywhere you went there were hat racks and cloak rooms in department stores, hotels, museums and restaurants so that you could check your coat, your umbrella and your hat with the attendants knowing full well how to look after a man’s fashionable fedora without denting it.

Christian Dior’s ‘new look’

Between the wars the majority of women worldwide, except those in high society, discarded their bonnets, bobbed their hair, raised their hems from full length to mid-calf and set about trying to change societal rules about such things. World War II came along in 1939 and changed the game yet again.

After such a fierce and horrific conflict there was a return to old fashioned values taking place, which meant looking back to the Edwardian age before both world wars when elegant and refined fashion came out of Paris. Once again they donned their gloves, their hats and took their umbrellas, just in case of rain.

All these were subject to fashion. They ensured too that their hems remained firmly at mid-calf level.

During the 1950’s following World War II horse racing, which was already an important aspect of our lives had a huge revival. So did the wearing of complete outfits of costume all chosen to compliment each other, with matching ensembles, becoming the norm.

On the world stage French fashion Christian Dior launched his whole ‘new look’ that more or less cemented that basic ideal. However it did go further, as he created clean curvaceous shapes and ‘sexy’ silhouettes, using boning to boost the breasts, bustier-style bodices, hip padding, wasp-waisted corsets and petticoats, all of which gave his models a wonderfully sculpted form.

Dior also ensured Paris became once again, a focus and centre for fashion.

After so many years on rationing and shelving their desire for fashion while their men were dying at the front, women were ready once again to ‘dress up’ again to please their man, to go about stylishly and win admiration and praise from their friends, while having a jolly good time.

It was all about dressing for a sense of occasion so that they could respect and celebrate the renewal of life.

Men got back into the act as well.

During the late forties and fifties scenes of men wearing bespoke crisply tailored pin stripe suits abounded, especially at the races where top hats became de rigeur as they had been before World War I.

Men wore their hats everywhere, they even became a subject for modern art. My father certainly never left the house without his firmly in place.

There were all sorts of hats for all sorts of occasions. Bowler hats were worn in London for years by men in certain ‘professions’.

During the next few years ‘field and fashion’ became popular language to describe successful horse racing events.

One of the leaders for the ‘fashions on the field’ was the new young English Queen Elizabeth II, who was also the Queen of Australia.

She was a passionate horse lover, a racehorse owner and the all-new ‘Commonwealth’ leader of style.

She wore mid calf length dresses, worn with pearls, hats and gloves, which all women wanting to be seen as integral to high society, adopted with great alacrity.

In the edition of every woman’s favourite magazine The Australian Women’s Weekly published on 13th November 1957, they used the headline ‘In the Fashion Field for Flemington’.

As part of a push to promote the Centenary Cup in 1960 fashion, flowers and favourites were promoted to ‘woo more women to the races’.

This was so successful in 1962 the Victoria Racing Club launched a ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition for the Spring Racing Carnival to find ‘the smartest dressed woman.

At first three categories were offered; outfits that cost 30 pounds or under, those 50 pounds and over, as well as the ‘most elegant hat’.

Hat and gloves and stockings were considered necessary attire and the winner Miss Margaret Wood of the Under 30 pounds category borrowed her hat and the money to purchase her outfit.

She won a new Ford Falcon Future motorcar and a Cyclax beauty case valued at fifty pounds.

Fashionable Flemington 1968, how about all those hats and gloves!

In 1963 Margaret Wood’s best friend a Sunday school teacher and stenographer Barbara Woods (yes that’s correct but no relation) also won, proving that you did not have to be a society matron to be a winner now.

It was in 1965 when English model Jean Shrimpton a special guest at the Carnival shocked the staid matrons in the Ladies stand, as well as the nation, with her casual take on race fashion.

Her mini skirt, which reality was only just above the knee, was indeed a revelation and heralded things to come. On her first day at the races she also came without a hat, scandalising everyone by leaving her head uncovered.

On her second day she sported what we would think today was a sedate double breasted suit topped by a much larger hat than most other women wore at the time, one that swept back and showed off her beautiful face.

But it still caused controversy, after all you could see her knees! Shocking!

Now o’er the seas, on moors and downs
Hooves pound in expectation,
Through early morning mists that veil
Their great determination.
The best will come to challenge
The antipodean horse
In the gruelling race of two miles -
On the famous Melbourne course*

As the event evolved over the next few decades it brought out both the best and the very worst in people and their idea of what fashion was.

Melbourne Cup HatsMany hilarious and outrageous takes on fashion became integral to the event, capturing both the public and media’s interest.

It also provided plenty of extra promotional opportunities for the fashion pundits.

By the late 1970’s up and coming designers were heavily involved and during the 1980’s with economies booming all around the world, the fashion stakes increased dramatically.

In 1986 Vivienne McCredie, born and raised at Coogee Beach in Sydney, the suburb next to Royal Randwick where her family went often and enjoyed every aspect of horse racing, penned a poem entitled “The Race that Stops the Nation’.

Read out on the radio it gradually became embedded into popular culture.

The newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald reported in November 1987 the stock market may have crashed, but women were still sparing no expense to compete in the Fashions on the Field.

Fleur Olssen won the event in 1990 wearing a bright yellow dress and jacket. No one was more pleased than her mother, who had worn the same outfit to win in 1972.

In 2012 Fashions on the Field celebrated 50 years in Australia. Today it is a national event and is marketed around the world.

Throughout the year events are held across the country at race events to find finalists in the Women’s Racewear category interstate.

The winners are then all flown to Melbourne to compete in the major competition held on Crown Oaks Day, traditionally now Women’s Day at the races in Melbourne.

The local finalist is chosen from the three winners of the Fashions on the Field competitions held on Victoria Derby Day, Melbourne Cup Day and Crown Oaks Day and this lady competes against all the other state winners.

The competition is fierce and colourful.

Not to leave the guys out of the loop prizes are also now given for Men’s Racewear at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

There is also an ‘invitation only’ Design Award, a separate Millinery Award and the popular ‘People’s Choice’ Award, which is voted for ‘Online’.

Marketing and promotion techniques have turned the popularity of the Victoria Racing Club’s annual horse-racing event it seems to good account.

Today in all States of Australia breakfasts, lunches and dinners held in the week prior to the cup ensures that many people enjoy the sense of occasion and dress for it as well.

The statistics about the Melbourne Cup and what it contributes to our nation and its economy monetarily are staggering.

On a Tuesday in November,
The first one to be sure,
As the winner flashes past the post,
You’ll hear the thousands roar.
For never has there been a race
To catch imagination
Than the race that’s run at Flemington
The race that stops the nation!*

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

#Australian Dictionary of Biography

*The Race that Stops The Nation – A Poem for All Australians

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