A history of racing in Australia: look back on these stylish trackside moments

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Jean Shrimpton at Derby Day in 1965

Fashion is to horseracing what tonic is to gin. One doesn’t just make the other better: they’re entirely symbiotic. Ever since the Victoria Racing Club introduced Fashions on the Field in 1962, to encourage a more enthusiastic female contingent in the crowd, style has become as important as the stakes at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

There are rules and conventions at the Carnival that make dressing to a theme more interesting, but some of the best fashion moments in racing history were created by women who didn’t play by the rules.

In 1965, three years after Fashions on the Field kicked off, model Jean Shrimpton arrived in Melbourne sans hat, gloves and stockings (accessories that were considered essential to the dress code), and caused a stir. The then-22-year-old beauty was also clad in a white shift dress that was 12 centimetres above her knees – apparently enough to kick the winning horse off the front pages of the newspapers the following day. Shrimpton’s legs (she claimed that photographers knelt at her feet to shoot upwards and make the skirt appear even shorter) replaced the ‘race that stopped a nation’ with ‘the legs that stopped a nation’. Her dress, by London-based maker Colin Rolfe, not only rocked the local establishment, but also made a strong case for shorter hemlines the world over. For her next appearance at the Carnival, Shrimpton paired a hat (by Melbourne milliner Adele Chapeaux) with a two-piece suit. Her unwillingness to conform to convention might have been shocking back in 1965, but by the following year, mini-dresses were seen all over Flemington.

A racegoer at the Melbourne Cup in 1969

Jean Shrimpton and Terrance Stamp at Melbourne Cup in 1965

Gai Waterhouse (at centre) with Melbourne Cup fashionistas in 1969

In the 1970s, maxi-dresses, florals, boots and pants-suits dominated on and off the track. In place of Fashions on the Field, which took a temporary hiatus, a local newspaper ran a contest for the most stylish couple. Finally, fashion-forward men in flared pants and pointy collars got the attention they deserved.

The 80s were a colourful era for the Melbourne Cup, and the reinstatement of Fashions on the Field recaptured the public’s attention to sartorial choices. In fact, a significant boost in prize money catapulted fashion to the forefront. In 1985, Princess Diana arrived at the Melbourne Cup not in shoulder pads and taffeta, like most of her contemporaries, but in a black and white Bruce Oldfield suit and matching monochrome Frederick Fox hat, black gloves and pearl-drop earrings. It was a bold antithesis to the brashness of the decade, which made it even more of a style statement. But it was her sheer stockings with a delicate back seam and bow above the ankles that was the most memorable – and most emulated – element.

The focus on fashion from the neck up took an artistic turn in the 90s and into the 00s. Hats were big, bold and colourful and dresses smaller. Spaghetti-strap slip dresses were the perfect backdrop for oversized and outlandish headwear, designed to become conversation starters. Men joined in, with the introduction of a male category in Fashions on the Field in 2001.

The current decade has proven everything old is new again, as traditions are revived and a more conservative era romanticised. When Nicole Kidman arrived at Derby Day in 2012 wearing an organic silk and lace L’Wren Scott dress and a hat made out of
recycled plastic bottles by British milliner Stephen Jones, she could very well have been dressed in character for a remake of Audrey Hepburn’s iconic My Fair Lady. In 2013, Naomi Campbell chose a black-and-white hound’s-tooth Dior gown and Philip Treacy hat to keep it classic for the Melbourne Cup, offering a lesson in the value of keeping things simple, no matter the code of the day.

So, what will dominate Flemington in the next decade? Investment pieces you can repurpose time and again are odds-on favourites, according to milliner Viktoria Novak. “Crowns and headbands continue to be
popular. Something that is re-wearable is important, as there’s such a strong move towards sustainability in fashion. Modern racegoers would much rather invest in a quality headpiece and understand the
history of where and how it is made,” she says.

Fashions on the Field at the Melbourne Cup in 1971

Spectators at the Melbourne Cup

Gai Waterhouse with Kate Bosworth at Derby Day in 2006

Ita Buttrose and Bernard King at the Melbourne Cup in 1982

Nicole Kidman wearing L’Wren Scott at Derby Day in 2012

Diana, Princess of Wales at the Melbourne Cup in 1985Click Here: habitat tord boontje

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