What to wear to the horse races this season

From the trilby on your head to the Oxfords on your feet, we teach you the rules of trackside dress

In the thrill of the chase, the sport of horse racing has very few rules (the main thrust has long been simply to get to the finish line as quick as you can, and try not to lose the funny little Irishman on your back along the way). But in the paddock, the spectacle is liberally criss-crossed with ancient regulations and unspoken rules.

Entering the Royal Enclosure at Ascot feels a bit like walking through US customs, albeit with far  more people you’ve been avoiding since prep school and slightly fewer cavity searches. Is my tie too jaunty? Can I take this bloody hat off yet? And what is that man doing with that ruler? In this sea of very English etiquette, allow us to toss you a (tastefully coloured) life ring. Here is our definitive style guide to the four most sartorially-challenging race meetings this season.

The Investec Derby

If you’re in the Queen’s stand (which you probably will be) on Ladies Day, you’ll need to wear a jacket, collar and tie, while ridding yourself of denim or the slightest hint of a trainer. Some opt for navy suits and white or powder blue shirts with a vaguely summery tie, while others go for linen jackets over chinos, or continental-inspired suit separates.

On Derby Day, of course, you’ll need to wear full black or grey morning suit complete with a top hat. Waistcoats tend to oscillate from pale yellow to 50 shades of grey, and not much beyond that. Black oxfords or Derbys are par for the paddock here.

Royal Ascot

In the Windsor Enclosure, no formal dress code is enforced, though most gentlemen find it in their hearts to throw on a blazer and loafers, at the very least. Up an echelon in the Queen Anne Enclosure, men are asked to wear a matching suit (none, the board sniffs, of this mismatched Italian nonsense) and a tie. Things tend to run the gamut from Prince of Wales check through to pastel linens, though you might lean towards more traditional ensembles and colour palettes given the course’s attachment to tradition and decorum.

Up in the rarefied atmosphere of the Royal Enclosure, meanwhile, you’ll need to wear either a black or grey morning suit, a waistcoat (most often grey, baby blue, powder pink or faded gold) and a tie (no cravats, please.) Top hats are de rigeur, and should be black or grey and free from any personalisation or ostentatious ribbons. A gentleman may remove his top hat within a restaurant, a private box, a private club, or corresponding balconies and gardens.

Qatar Goodwood Festival

Despite the festival’s modern name change, Goodwood will always go by its ‘glorious’ sobriquet. And while some of that magic is inherited from the quality of the racing and the splendour of the estate, a lot of it comes down to the inherent style of the occasions. 

Gentleman are encouraged to go for something both elegant and relaxed, and the general form dictates linen or navy suits and summery, if tasteful, ties. Some men lean towards a certain sprezzatura nowadays – think suit separates, chinos and a smattering of double breasted blazers above tasselled loafers.

The spirit animal of Goodwood, however, has long been a crisp, off-white Panama hat, worn, might we suggest, above some particularly moody Persols.

QIPCO Champions Day

The autumnal air adds a new twist to the traditional Ascot dress code for this remarkable conclusion to the flat season. There’s no Royal Enclosure to speak of here, so most men opt for matching suits in charcoal, navy or muted tones, perhaps inflected with a gentle herringbone, check or houndstooth. Traditional racing Trilbies – in navy, chestnut brown or black – often make a reappearance with summer long subsided, as do tweed overcoats or navy macintoshes.

Further Reading