A Rule Is a Rule: A Day Among the Millinery at Royal Ascot

After six Pimms, 20 squandered pounds, two purchased hats, and one final race at Royal Ascot, the five-day premier horse racing event in England, Rachel and I board the crowded train back to London and end up sitting in the First Class car. We’d somehow found ourselves, two Americans, returning from a day at the races.

A slim woman in her thirties with long, blond hair enters our small coach. “Just ladies in here, is it?” she asks in an English accent, smiling and glancing at us. “This is the smallest First Class coach I have ever seen.” She adjusts her black-and-white checked dress and slips her shoes off as she sits down at the table next to us.

“Did you win any today?” I ask her.

“I won on every race,” she says, smoothing her blond hair into a long ponytail. “It was a winning streak.” She looks around and points to the narrow aisle between our seats.

“Is there going to be a drinks cart on this train?” she asks. “How could it even fit in here?”

She places her black hat on the seat next to her and we start to make small talk about the strict fashion rules at Royal Ascot this year. “Oh, I just thought the Royal Enclosure this year was appalling. Just appalling. Some girls slipped in wearing mini-skirts, as if it’s a nightclub. I have nice legs, too, but this is Ascot. A rule is a rule,” she says. “Dresses should hit the knee and hats need to have a base of four inches or more.” She gestures emphatically: “Those are the rules. That’s what makes it so English. That’s what makes it Ascot.”

“My mother won’t even come to Royal Ascot anymore,” she adds.

•••

Most girls grow out of the crazy horse phase as soon as they discover boys, but my friend Rachel — who is 28 years old — was intent on getting me to attend Royal Ascot with her this year. I agreed, even though I knew little about it: I assumed it was an English horse race and that we’d get to drink gin outside. It was only after an elaborate effort to secure tickets (or badges) to the restricted Royal Enclosure section — a process that, for Americans, involves writing to the US ambassador to the UK and sending in character references by mail — that I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Suddenly it began to feel less like we were going to a horse race and more like we were going to Prince Charming’s ball.

The five-day horseracing event dates back to 1711. Members of the Royal Family are always in attendance. The dress code is strict, and it’s only gotten stricter, as a way to stave off unsuitably dressed attendees. Inside the Royal Enclosure, which Rachel and I would have access to, women’s dresses must be knee-length, straps must be at least an inch wide (nothing strapless, no halters, no bare midriffs), and hats are required for both women (FOUR-inch base minimum) and men (top hats like Mr. Peanut). In case that wasn’t clear enough, Ascot put out this mesmerizing video for guidance.

Read about what happened at Ascot at The Hairpin.

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