Judging women at horse races has always been a national sport 

As the Ascot dress code is announced, Caroline O'Donoghue uncovers a story from 1908 that reminds us how little has changed  

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

The coverage of women at horse races and the coverage of horses at horse races often gets muddled, I think. Every year, from Aintree to Ascot, every newspaper seems to convince itself that the women who attend horse races are there to invite criticism and commentary: what is she wearing? How is she behaving? Is she drunk? Is she following the dress code? Run your hand up her leg to see how good knick she’s in; check her teeth and see if she’s lying about her age. 

Every year, the women are permitted a few concessions, a little sugar cube served to them with a flat palm. This year, The Telegraph has reported that women will now be permitted to wear jumpsuits at Ascot’s Royal Enclosure, as long as they are full length. Skirts, we will remind you, should be just above the knee or longer. Jackets and pashminas are fine. Straps should be one inch wide or more: it’s not permissible to have your harness visible. Sorry, did we say harness? We mean bra. 

The epidemic of shaming race dress choices is nothing new, and something my friend Christina McDermott wrote about last year for Aintree’s Ladies Day. What surprises me though, is HOW not-new it is: in fact, it’s been going on since 1908. 

No, this isn’t a press shot for a new Carey Mulligan movie: this picture was taken of real women in 1908. I know. There’s something about this picture – taken at Longchamps in France – that I can’t quite get over. It’s one of the few times I’ve been able to look at a photograph of a Victorian woman and really understand the fullness of her character, the vividness of her existence. And – at the risk of sounding a bit pervy – oh my GOD, can you believe how hot these women look? 

As Vanessa Grall points out on her (frankly brilliant) blog Messy Nessy Chic, these photographs were just as infuriating to the tabloids in 1908 as the ladies of Aintree are today. 

“The gawking crowd at Longchamp could see that the women were not wearing what they considered to be underwear, which in those days of course consisted of bulky under-garments including a full corset, petticoat and chemise,” writes Grall. “The French weekly newspaper, L’Illustration, reported conservative Parisian women marching their husbands and sons out of the racing enclosure.” 

The designer of these dresses – Margaine-Lacroix, who has since been “written out of fashion history”, according to Grall – sparked an international trend for figure-hugging dresses that would later become the 20th century silhouette. And all from a day at the races. 

There’s something dually comforting and depressing about this little bit of fashion history. It’s exhausting to think that women are on a constant conveyer belt of judgement and shame for what they’re wearing and what they’re not wearing. It’s depressing to wonder whether they will always be judged on whether they are tame or feral; whether they are groomed appropriately or outlandishly; whether they are winners or losers. 

On the other hand, the story of Margaine-Lacroix and the success of her early body-con dresses reminds us that all it takes is one strong backward kick to flip history on its head. 



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