Today is Melbourne Cup Day. Yesterday I did an interview about Cup Day, fashion, gender and consumerism with Lourdes García Larqué for 3CR Community Radio – it was broadcast on today's Breakfast program (I'll post the link once I know what it is). Since then, I've been thinking some more about the issues we discussed.
I find it hard to get excited about spring racing fashion because I believe racing is a cruel pastime with troubling inbuilt class politics. For me it's like enjoying the Duchess of Cambridge's fashion choices when she represents a system of inherited privilege that locks up much of the UK's wealth in the hands of a family whose only purpose in life is political symbolism.
Marieke Hardy wrote an opinion piece for The Drum back in 2010 calling the Melbourne Cup "a truly revolting spectacle". Hardy's anti-cruelty sentiments are laudable. There's really no excuse to celebrate the use of animals for entertainment and the miserable treatment that goes with this. I mean, Black Beauty, written to 'humanise' horses so readers could empathise with their lives as chattels, was first published in 1877.
But I was startled by – and uncomfortable with – Hardy's repeated, contemptuous references to racegoers' dress and behaviour. They dress "like a complete twat with scant regard to the weather forecast", with "streaky fake tan or idiotic, impractical headwear". And these "freezing cold idiot women toppling over in muddy, undignified heaps, the natty prats in matching comedy waistcoats blearily waving cans of Bundy about", will find themselves "eventually teetering home covered in a fine spray of puke and semen".
Wow. Apart from the language, we can tell this is about setting up boundaries between Us and Them because the magic word 'bogans' also comes out!
Hardy makes an unpleasant slippage here between class and cruelty, implying that finding racing cruel requires the same cultural capital as 'dressing well'. This seems odd considering that racing is 'the sport of kings' and is just as popular with toffs in the Birdcage, Members and corporate marquees as with the stumbling general-admission masses in their dishevelled apparel.
We go to the races seeking something glamorous, special, out of the ordinary… but too often, as Hardy ably sketches, we're instead put back in our class boxes and told we're dressing and behaving 'wrongly'. Tomorrow we'll see the traditional 'aftermath' photographs of people sprawled on the racecourse amid abandoned rubbish; of people throwing up; of women walking barefoot, having removed their high heels, and women huddled in their male companions' jackets, having not brought their own.
These are the shaming photos. Men's clothing is frowned upon as incompetently chosen: their suits, ties, shoes, hats and sunglasses are deemed 'loud', 'ill-fitting' and 'inappropriate'. Women are basically slut-shamed for dresses that are too short, too low-cut or that flip up in gusts of wind, and for dressing for vanity rather than practicality.
Janice Breen Burns, the former Age fashion editor, warned in 2006 that racewear is very different to fashion: "It's not as sexy, for one thing. It's neater, more controlled. Things match, knees are covered. Cleavage is a no-no."
Even last year, she tutted retrospectively about the dress of youthful racegoers: "poppets in string-strapped, knicker-flasher frocklets…had flooded out of the sparkly nightclubs and year-12 formals and on to trackside lawns." Still, JBB did concede that Fashions on the Field has since evolved.
In 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald's Luke Malone described spring racing season as "Schoolies for grown-ups": "The end result of a day sipping sparkling wine and sinking beers in the often sweltering heat sees men walking around with their flies undone and women with high heels in hand as if it were 2am after a night out in Kings Cross."
Malone's article is interesting because, while it also presents racegoers as infantilised consumer dupes, Malone suggests a certain festive permissiveness. As his anonymous friend says: "A couple of years back at Melbourne Cup I saw a pair getting hot and heavy right by the track - complete with hands-under-clothes action. There were easily 30 people watching and laughing yet it didn't seem all that inappropriate at the time. Everyone is always in good spirits. You never normally see people get that drunk without a fistfight breaking out."
These are the kinds of images that we often see at Melbourne Cup time; of all the days in Melbourne's spring racing carnival, it's the most carnivalesque. Because the Cup is a public holiday and is said to belong to 'everyone' – it's "the race that stops a nation" – many people feel they can dress and behave in ways that ridicule and upend traditional hierarchies and morals… including those of gender and taste. You'll see people dressed in drag, as animals, in parodies of traditional racewear and in matching outfits.
I'd suggest that perhaps these marquee race meetings offer 'ordinary' people opportunities to be carnivalesque by temporarily dressing as our 'betters', borrowing the dress and habits of the 1%. It's not just about the clothes, but also about betting, eating fancy foods such as chicken sandwiches and smoked salmon, and drinking champagne.
There aren't many similar events like these, for which to plan and enjoy wearing elaborate clothes and to consume conspicuously – especially for people who've left university and its cycle of balls and 21sts. Even at weddings, people rarely wear hats any more, and the evangelical churches that are now popular with churchgoers (as 'traditional' churchgoing declines) encourage attendees to wear casual clothes rather than 'Sunday best'.
Looking through The Age's photo gallery of today's event (photos by Eddie Jim, Justin McManus, Wayne Taylor and Angela Wylie), I was struck by the way that racewear has developed its own logics, separate from the dictates that made it so shocking in 1965 when Jean Shrimpton wore a short dress with no hat, gloves or stockings.
Look at this doll! Doesn't she look young and gorgeous? There's something festive and joyous about the bright colours chosen by some younger racegoers.
This is Joanna Stanes on her way to the Cup. I like her bold lipstick compared to the subdued colours and textures of her hat. She looks both romantic and modern. I also like that she's wearing a hat rather than a fascinator.
This is a rather ladylike, vintage-inspired look (and a stunning photo by Justin McManus). The popularity of Mad Men and the general interest in mid-20th-century culture has driven a return to these styles. I've also noticed that brides in my social circle who favour a vintage aesthetic tend to prefer fascinator-style veils to traditional wedding veils.
The demureness and prescriptiveness of much midcentury fashion dovetails with our cultural associations of racewear with 'correctness' and 'classiness'. Usually I loathe the term 'classy' as one of those words that actually connotes its exact opposite, but here it's appropriate because people are often striving for a certain class fantasy of being wealthy and privileged.
I also noticed several different strands of women's racewear emerging. You can see these two sartorial approaches here: an edgier style in terms of colour and silhouette, compared to the classic racewear on the right. We can't see their faces, but I assume the woman on the left to be younger than the woman on the right.
I like that these two girls seem to be matching each other's outfits. Perhaps their hemlines are 'inappropriate' but they look so happy!
Deborah and John Quinn demonstrate a fun way to dress up when you're older. Deborah is a well-known millinery collector; she's in her element here. They have opted for traditional 'rules', but don't look fusty and conservative. I especially love the way that Deborah's sunglasses and gloves match John's buttonhole and waistcoat – which are the traditional yellow of Melbourne Cup Day.
By contrast, these are quite old-fashioned racegoers; their outfits are quite fussy and froufrou. I love the centre lady's pillbox hat; I wonder if it's her own vintage '60s number.
This is a good example of what many younger racegoers now consider appropriate: they're wearing flowers in their hair rather than hats; their skirts are very short (what Janice Breen Burns would call a 'frocklet'); and the fabrics are quite slinky and diaphanous in a way we associate with cocktail wear rather than daywear.
Like many celebrity racegoers and Fashions on the Field entrants who are professionally dressed by stylists, Lauren Phillips is wearing what we could call 'contemporary conservative': a sculptural but minimalist hat and a well-fitting, tailored dress that doesn't show too much skin.
Contemporary conservative (or 'contemporary corporate') is a style of racewear that doesn't really take risks: it's not exuberant like a lot of young people's racewear. You see it a lot in photos taken at the corporate marquees, and on models, invited guests and others who are at the races in a professional or promotional capacity.
Despite the boldness of its hats, it's not very whimsical or individual. When you see a number of different celebrities dressed this way, you notice the sameyness, even down to the position and angle of the hats.
For instance, here are model Jennifer Hawkins, sass&bide designers Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke and football WAG Rebecca Judd at the Melbourne Cup in 2011.
And here are Hawko and Juddy at last year's Oaks Day, flanking Kris Smith, who I believe is best known for having once dated Dannii Minogue.