Preparing For Ascot: What To Wear

Royal Ascot | Royal Hats Guest poster Charles continues sharing his preparations attend Ascot this year with an explanation of the dress code. Enjoy! 

As almost anyone who is aware of Royal Ascot knows, the event is a 5-day fashion extravaganza! No matter the enclosure, attendees bring out their best fashion, and that includes hats or fascinators for almost everyone woman. Even those who attend in areas with very limited dress guidelines “dress to impress.”

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But the best fashion and people watching happens in the Royal Enclosure. With very strict guidelines on appropriate fashion for women and men, the Royal Enclosure sees cutting-edge fashion and hats like no other place on earth. The first year I attended I walked up to two women who were both “turned out” beautifully. When I complimented them on their hat selections it happened that one woman was British and one American. The American woman exclaimed, “I spent more time selecting this hat than I did for my first wedding dress!” Now that’s dedication.

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For me personally, after having attended Royal Ascot and the Royal Enclosure in 2012 & 2013, I made notes to myself about ideas for future years when I might attend. I’ve already shared my experiences gaining knowledge of the differences in top hats and my own adventure into purchasing an antique silk topper. As a man, it is more difficult to make that splashing fashion statement as much of the attire is prescribed – black or gray morning dress including a waistcoat and tie as well as a black or gray top hat. So how does one make his attire a bit more interesting?

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What does black or gray morning dress actually mean? There are a few basic elements to morning dress – morning coat, almost always in black fabric; “cashmere” striped trousers (more on this later); waistcoat, usually in buff/tan, powder blue, or gray; white or pastel shirt (always with white collar and French cuffs); tie (no cravats); black shoes.

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An alternative to the black morning coat and striped trousers is the gray morning suit – here the three basic elements of coat, trousers, and waistcoat are all fashioned from identical gray fabric. The Prince of Wales often wears a beautiful version of a morning suit in a light gray material.

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But wait! There actually are variations on proper morning attire for a gentleman. In addition to cashmere striped trousers (these are the familiar gray with thin black and/or white stripes – cashmere being the style, not the fabric) a gentleman can wear trousers fashioned from houndstooth fabric or, and this is where is gets interesting, one’s family tartan. Yes, a man can wear trousers fashioned from his family’s tartan plaid along with the black morning coat! Also, some time ago it was relatively common to see a gentleman wearing trousers in a Glen plaid pattern.

1960s Ascot

A young Duke of Kent in Glen plaid trousers

Ascot morning dress 4 Ascot morning dress 5

Traditional cashmere stripe morning suit trousers

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To add to one’s personal style, men are often seen wearing vibrant waistcoats in various patterns and fabrics. The traditional waistcoat is buff/tan, powder blue, or gray but for weddings and days at the races it is acceptable and appropriate to “have a little fun” with one’s waistcoat. Summer colors such as yellow, pink, floral patterns, and lots of fabrics with a horse theme are seen on many men in the Royal Enclosure.

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Lastly, shirts and ties are a place where a man can make a personal, sartorial statement. A gentleman’s shirt should be either white or pastel but always must include a white collar (this goes back to the days when the collar was separate from the actual shirt) and French cuffs, also allowing for a bit of being a dandy in the selection of a pair of nice cufflinks.

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Thanks, Charles! Morning suits are not commonly worn in North America and this explanation is so helpful! In his next post, Charles will share what he’s planning to wear next week and tell the tale of a very special pair of trousers. Stay tuned!

Photos from Getty as indicated; Morning Dress Guide and Savy Row

17 thoughts on “Preparing For Ascot: What To Wear

  1. Thank you Charles for this interesting post. You are so lucky to have experienced the magic of Royal Ascot first-hand. I have never been there myself, though I have attended many other races. Nothing seems to beat the fabulous Royal Ascot hats!

  2. Very informative! Lots of tradition, rules, and protocol. No tee shirts, ball caps and blue jeans here! I loved the trip down memory lane with King Geoge V and Queen Mary, and the late Duke & Duchess of Kent. Goodness, how like his father, the present Duke of Kent (w/ his sister, Princess Alexandra) looked in his younger days.

    • I agree Liz. Look at the detailing on King George V coat. Just wonderful. And I was looking at the picture of the Duke of Kent and Princess Marina – what an understated but stylish couple.

  3. Thank you HatQueen for your comments. I read an article a while back ( I will go searching) by the DoE’s tailor. He commented that a double breasted waistcoat would always be flat across the bottom ( and is the one usually worn with a watch / fob chain ( see the Po Wales)) and a single breasted has the points at the bottom which should be 2 inches below the morning coat ! Phew. Now I might have some of that incorrect but never say there is anything simple about dress codes !!!

  4. Wow! Thank you, Charles! There is much more to this than I’d imagined. Some questions for you:

    Does a “waistcoat” have a lapel, as distinguished from a “vest,” which is what I’d call what Prince Edward and Earl of Spencer are wearing?

    So much clothing! While I’m sure the gentlemen might only “perspire,” and never “sweat’, doesn’t it get uncomfortable? Do the hats come off at some point, or stay on for the whole event?

    Are the boutonnières reserved for the VIPs, or may anyone wear them?

    And HatQueen, while this is not your post, I wondered whether you have any information on the spectacular floral headpiece in the second photo?

    • The wearer is Belinda Strudwick, who together with her husband Roy Strudwick, is a racehorse owner and breeder (I believe their farm is called Ballygallon Stud). She is also known for her spectacular Ascot hats, often bespoke pieces by Edwina Ibbotson millinery. I’m not certain who designed this one but my guess is Edwina Ibbotson.

    • I think they are both termed waistcoats. It is usual for a double breasted version to have a lapel and the single breasted to be plain. Over here in the UK the term ‘vest’ is usually (but not always) reserved for an item of underwear worn as an undergarment. It’s amazing to me that with such a strict code for the men they manage such fantastic variation. To me the gold standard goes to the Prince of Wales and The DoE – especially for the superb way he knots his tie – a whole subject in itself!!

      BTW I love Queen Margarethe in her coral / pink hat – what a lovely summer colour.

      • Dianne has done a great job of explaining.

        UK ‘vest’ = North American undershirt
        UK ‘waistcoat’ = North American vest

        In North America, waistcoats tend to be simple without lapels, more like the one worn above by the Earl of Wessex. Waistcoats in the UK, however, sometimes have extra details like the curved shawl lapel on Prince Charles’ grey waistcoats.

    • Hi MM, sorry for the delay in responding to your questions. I’ve actually been busy preparing for my trip to the UK and Ascot – we depart later today!

      As others have mentioned, essentially waistcoat is a British term and vest is an American one for the same men’s garment. I’ve really never seen the variations on a waistcoat in the US that one sees in the UK. As you’ve noticed there are single-breasted and double-breasted as well as those with and without lapels, etc. A man can also have stitched to the interior of his waistcoat a “slip” which shows as a very narrow edging along the breast (see the photo of the Earl of Wessex above – you can just see the white slip inside his waistcoat). I now have multiple waistcoats, as they are one of the primary ways a man can have some variation on morning dress, but only one double-breasted option. I’m hoping to find at least one double-breasted in my few days before Ascot.

      So much clothing indeed! It can get hot, I’ll admit. But if your clothes are of good quality and fit well I find I am comfortable nonetheless. And I happen to like dressing up! LOL! As for the hats – men are required to wear their hats at all times except when in restaurants or other interior areas. Men can also remove their hats while sitting in the enclosed garden areas of restaurants or private clubs found throughout the Royal Enclosure. Just like with the clothing, if the hat fits well it isn’t a burden.

      Boutonnières can be worn by any man (they are actually usually called “buttonholes” in the UK). During our first visit in 2012 I happened to be making my way to the restroom when I noticed two men selling a large variety of buttonholes. They were positioned perfectly, at one of the entrances from the car park area. I quickly selected one for myself and my partner, and each day thereafter, in 2012 & 2013, we made our way to these men first thing to select our buttonhole for the day. They have a large enough variety of flowers that you can usually find something that coordinates with your waistcoat and tie selection that day.

  5. I was not aware trousers with the family tartan could be worn in the Royal Enclosure (not that I have family tartan haha, but still . . .). And it’s nice to know the waistcoat colors are not strictly enforced. I like color and variety in my wardrobe, so finding a slightly different waistcoat would be one more way I would go, in addition to the tie and pocket square. (all this assuming I ever get to Ascot, let alone into the Royal Enclosure!)

  6. What a wonderful post! I know nothing about this, and Charles, your explanation is very clear. I am looking forward to your next post.
    Thank you!

  7. Thank you, Charles, for your detailed posts on Royal Ascot. Your explanations are most helpful. I look forward to viewing pictures and reports of this year’s Ascot with a much more critical eye. I appreciate your sharing part of your vast knowledge. Thanks!

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