Every year, women gather from up and down the UK, and even further afield, to attend Cheltenham Ladies Day: a fashion extravaganza with a well-deserved reputation. As the above infographic shows, the ladies contribute towards the 230,000 people in attendance for the festival – making the competition in the stands just as feisty as the on-track racing, in regards to who turns the most heads with their outfits throughout the week.
Every year the in-season trends change, but what exactly is the undoubted Cheltenham style, if indeed there is such a thing? The strong ties between horse racing and the English upper classes are manifested somewhat is the sartorial timbre of Cheltenham Ladies. And a look at the best and worst outfits from last year will reveal a penchant for dress that makes no secret of its functional capacities: from wellington boots to wax jackets; austere-looking blazers and thick, warming furs. Not all of these clothes are strictly utilitarian, of course, but the aesthetic very much hails from that tradition.
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This makes a good deal of sense considering the roots of events such as Ascot and Cheltenham, and the consequent affinity to nature, and British rural values.
One more extravagant feature of Cheltenham’s women’s fashion are the often colourful and always over-large items of head gear, which one hesitates to call hats in the same way one hesitates to call the eclectically lit shoes of very rich basketball players mere trainers. Some feature mixtures of netting, corsage and traditional hat styles, while others strike out into new territory entirely. It would not be utterly anomalous, at Cheltenham Ladies, to see mountains of pearls sculpted into a kind of forehead prow, a sight which recalls an almost medieval feeling, and seems both crown-like and modern all at once.
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However, if the Cheltenham style is indeed a new spin on the fashion traditions typically associated with wealth and status, this certainly does not make it unique.
In the last few years, high-street fashion has been swept by craze after craze rooted in a certain kind of nostalgia, or aspiration, or at least aesthetic fetishisation. First to grab our attention were chinos: sensible legwear that effectively removed the stranglehold jeans had enjoyed over the apathetic-male market for years. Then came the deck shoe, and the deck shirt, and then a whole raft – pardon the pun – of boating-related clothing and apparel. A new push toward formality and traditional style was in the air, and much of it to do with the leisure activities of the upper classes.
Today this is apparent in the success of brands like Barbour, North Face, and Hunter, whose appeal is essentially the same, whether you’re in East Sussex or in Central London. And events like Cheltenham Ladies have a large part to play in this phenomenon. If one considers the root of this trend to be a fascination with the very type of fashion embodied by these women, then one can also think of Cheltenham Ladies itself as a kind of epicentre: the raw pool of ideas from which that strand of fashion is spun.