In the United States, the horse racing event with the most press and highest attendance is the Kentucky Derby, occurring on the first Saturday of May. In the United Kingdom, the biggest race of the year is Royal Ascot. It takes place over five days in mid-June with races on Tuesday through Saturday. The first races were held at Ascot in Berkshire in 1711 and have been presided over by British monarchs ever since. There’s an excellent timeline of the history here.
Many Americans are familiar with Ascot thanks to the iconic and monochromatic scene in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn. “C’mon, Dover!”
The Parade Ring
In June 2022 after years of sending custom hats to Ascot, I was finally able to make the trip myself. I opted to attend on Thursday, which is Ladies Day. It’s definitely an event where the excitement surrounding the fashion and millinery rivals that for the horse racing!
I took advantage of the early bird pricing in March and purchased a pair of tickets for the Queen Anne enclosure. It’s the highest tier available to the general public. In order to be in the Royal Enclosure, one must apply for membership and have two member sponsors, or attend as a guest of a member. The Royal Enclosure has the strictest dress code. Hats are required and any headpiece or hatinator must have a minimum base diameter of 4 inches.
Rules are slightly more relaxed in the Queen Anne enclosure. Fascinators are permitted, i.e. smaller pieces on just a headband or comb, and dress styles aren’t as modest as in the Royal Enclosure. For example, you may wear a dress with shoulder straps or a halter neck. Those are not allowed in the Royal Enclosure area.
En route from Waterloo Station to Ascot
My +1 for Ladies Day was my lovely daughter Heide. She’s been attending university in the EU so meeting in London was an easy option. On the big day, we found American milliner and friend Melissa Glim at Waterloo Station and took the train to Ascot. It was full of high-spirited fellow racegoers dressed to the nines in a tantalizing array of headwear, from modern sinamay saucers to antique silk plush top hats.
A colorful queue
At the Ascot station, everyone disembarked and walked the short distance to the racecourse. It was crowded and unusually hot for the UK at 84° F (29° C) so I was glad our plan had been for short-sleeved cotton dresses! I wore a printed dress by Gary Graham that was featured on Amazon's Making the Cut. Heide wore an embroidered dress by Marc Jacobs, purchased secondhand at Moss Austin. And our hats? Milli Starr, of course!
Traditional millinery techniques (and materials)
Both were an excuse for me to try out some unusual vintage flange brims that had recently come into my possession. My hat is a tricorne-inspired topper rendered in a 1960s metallic blue straw cloth over buckram and adorned with gold metal veiling from the 1920s. Heide wore a halo hat in navy blue sinamay with a lemon yellow brim extension and a single white silk rose.
With Melissa in the Queen Anne Enclosure
The Royal Procession at 2 pm was highly anticipated, however, with the illness of Queen Elizabeth II, few of the primary members of the family were in attendance. We did see Princess Anne and her daughter Zara (Phillips) Tindall. The Princess wore an elegant sinamay hat with asymmetrical brim in beige and Tindall sported a colorful parasisal boater in emerald green with a bright pink rose.
From Left: Melissa, Elly, Jane & I
We wandered, watched races and met several milliners including Elly Stemerdink (NL) who is the current owner and editor of The Hat Magazine and Jane Fryers (UK) of the British Millinery Association. Carole Denford, founder of The Hat Magazine, snapped our photos for her current editorial venture, Fashion Hat.
And of course, we noted the fashion trends. Sinamay was the predominant material for headwear. We saw lots of sinamay and crinoline swirls with feathers attached to a headband or small base. Shades of pink were popular but also neutrals including white, ivory, natural straw, navy and black. Boaters, pillboxes, and lots of saucers and hats with a wide brim but low crown (a silhouette that was popular in the 1930s and again in the 80s).
On the Lawn in the Queen Anne Enclosure
The majority of the millinery seen outside of the Royal Enclosure was of the off-the-rack variety, which made sense. We spotted the best of the couture millinery while sitting near the Royal Enclosure. Members begin exiting en masse after 5 pm and it was quite the fashion parade!
Mother-Daughter Photo Ops
By 6:15 pm when the Singing Around the Bandstand began, we were exhausted from the heat but found a place to sit and listen. It was the perfect way to end the day. Then we queued up for the slow crawl back to the waiting trains for the hour ride to London. Overall, it was an incredible experience and I would absolutely love to attend Royal Ascot again. Anyone want a guest for the Royal Enclosure in 2024?