‘It encourages mediocrity’: new dress code divides Cheltenham racegoers

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Looking across the packed stands of Cheltenham Racecourse on day one of this year’s festival, it is fair to say the usual mix of tweed suits, blazers, flat caps and feather-topped country hats dominated.

But after the Jockey Club’s decision to ease dress restrictions across its courses, there was also a noticeable increase in denim jeans and leather jackets – and even the odd tracksuit on show.

Not all were happy. “We need to keep the dress code to a certain standard,” said Dawn Leadon-Bolger, an Irish racegoer and fashionista resplendent in a pink trouser suit (with heatpads hidden underneath against the chill wind). “The jockeys and the trainers are always very well-dressed and I think it’s a form of respect to them to dress smartly.”

Dawn Leadon-Bolger
Dawn Leadon-Bolger in her £30 secondhand suit. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The Jockey Club argues that changing the dress code will make racing more “accessible and inclusive”.

Leadon-Bolger, who retrains former racehorses at her base in Co Wicklow as well as promoting sustainable fashion, was not impressed. “I don’t think being allowed to wear jeans and flip-flops is going to encourage more people to racing. I think they should look at things like ticket prices,” she said.

“You don’t have to be wealthy to dress well. My suit was £30 from a car boot sale. I went to the Arc de Triomphe in an outfit for under a tenner head to toe.”

Before the opening of Cheltenham, the jockey club’s chief executive, Nevin Truesdale, said the idea was to show that racing “is for everyone”.

Kaine Booth, Josh Brown and Jake Yeomans, from Nottingham
(L-r) Kaine Booth, Josh Brown and Jake Yeomans, from Nottingham, mixed smart and casual. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Actually, even before this year there was no formal dress code at Cheltenham, a unique meeting where royals rub shoulders with farmers, City types, Irish race fans and chancers taking a sneaky day off work. The edict has long been to dress appropriately for the weather.

But Truesdale said the perception was that you were supposed to dress in a particular way. “By taking the decision not to impose dress codes at any of our 15 racecourses, we now hope to get rid of any ambiguity or uncertainty.”

Paul Green, 55, from Hampshire, was in a smart pair of jeans and a blazer on Tuesday. “I’ve worn chinos for the last 10 years or so,” he said. “But I feel more comfortable in jeans and heard they were taking a more relaxed view so thought I’d give it a go.”

There were mixed views in the shopping village. Sandra Draper, of the London Fur Company, said: “People should wear whatever they like. I don’t feel that anyone should be told what to wear.”

Milliner Jonny Beardsall in his stall
Milliner Jonny Beardsall in his stall at Cheltenham. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Jonny Beardsall, a milliner from the Yorkshire Dales wearing a hat made out of a Hungarian grain sack and houndstooth-patterned suit, was more hardline, calling the easing of restrictions “a dreadful idea”.

“It encourages mediocrity,” he said. He has certain rules: “You shouldn’t have your shirt hanging out if you’re over 35. It just looks as if you’ve forgotten to tuck yourself in. And old men in skinny jeans with their arse hanging out the back is a very bad look.”

Ali Caulfield, 58, a tax adviser from Wiltshire who was wearing a Beardsall faux fur hat and glittery thigh-high boots from Russell & Bromley, said she had just seen a middle-aged man in trainers. “Shocking!” she exclaimed.

She was joking but went on to make a serious point, arguing that reducing prices (a Wednesday admission ticket for the Tattersalls enclosure is £72 and a pint of Guinness is £7.50) would be a better way of making the festival more inclusive.

Dorothy Lee, the owner of Montana Country Collection
Dorothy Lee, the owner of Montana Country Collection. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Dorothy Lee, the owner of Montana Country Collection clothing store, said that in the 20 years they had had a stand, the visitors had “slowly become more casual” but “proper race people” still wanted to dress up. “There was more wool and tweed and less trainers and puffer coats 20 years ago,” she said.

Three 22-year-old friends from Nottingham had gone down varied fashion routes. Jake Yeomans and Kaine Booth were sporting dinner jackets and bow ties – and trainers. Their mate Josh Brown had opted for a tracksuit top with smart brogues.

Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk, from Hull.
Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk, from Hull. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk, from Hull, wore eye-catching matching white suits speckled with red stars. “This is the greatest show on turf. We’re going to celebrate the best horses on the planet running here, so dressing up smart has to be the way to go.”