New dress code divides racegoers at Cheltenham

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Gazing across the packed stands at Cheltenham Racecourse on the first day of this year’s festival, it’s fair to say that the usual mix of tweed suits, blazers, flat caps and feather-trimmed country hats dominated.

But following the Jockey Club’s decision to relax dress restrictions on its courses, there has also been a noticeable increase in jeans and leather jackets – and even the odd tracksuit on display.

Not everyone was happy. “We have to keep the dress code to a certain standard,” he said Dawn Leadon-Bolger, an Irish racing driver and fashionista, who shines in a pink pantsuit (with heating pads tucked underneath to keep out the chilly wind). “The jockeys and the trainers are always very well dressed and I think it’s a form of respect for them to dress smartly.”

Dawn Leadon-Bolger in her 30lb thrift suit. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

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

Leadon-Bolger, who retrains ex-racehorses at her Co Wicklow base and champions sustainable fashion, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t think allowing people to wear jeans and flip flops will encourage more people to run. I think they should look at things like ticket prices,” she said.

“You don’t have to be rich to dress well. My suit was £30 from a flea market. I went head-to-toe to the Arc de Triomphe in a sub-tenner outfit.”

Ahead of the opening of Cheltenham, Jockey Club chief executive Nevin Truesdale said the idea was to show that racing “is for everyone”.

Kaine Booth, Josh Brown and Jake Yeomans from Nottingham

(Lr) Kaine Booth, Josh Brown and Jake Yeomans from Nottingham, a mix of dressy and casual. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In fact, even before this year there was no formal dress code at Cheltenham, a unique gathering that brings royals together with farmers, city types, Irish race fans and chancellors sneakily taking a day off. Dressing for the weather has long been the order of the day.

But Truesdale said the perception is that you should dress a certain way. “By deciding not to impose a dress code at any of our 15 racecourses, we now hope to clear up any ambiguity and uncertainty.”

Paul Green, 55, from Hampshire, wore a pair of smart jeans and a blazer on Tuesday. “I’ve been wearing chinos for about 10 years,” he said. “But I’m more comfortable in jeans and I’ve heard they have a more relaxed outlook, so I thought I’d give it a try.”

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

Hatter Jonny Beardsall in his stable

Hatter Jonny Beardsall at his stables in Cheltenham. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Jonny Beardsall, a milliner from the Yorkshire Dales who wears a hat made from a Hungarian grainsack and a houndstooth suit, was tougher, calling the easing of restrictions “a terrible idea”.

“It encourages mediocrity,” he says. He has certain rules: “You shouldn’t leave your shirt hanging out if you’re over 35. It just looks like you forgot to snuggle up a very bad look.”

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

She joked but made a serious point, arguing that lowering prices (a ticket to Tattersalls enclosure on Wednesday costs £72 and a pint of Guinness £7.50) would be a better way to make the festival more inclusive.

Dorothy Lee, the owner of the Montana Country Collection

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

Dorothy Lee, the owner of clothing store Montana Country Collection, said that in the 20 years she’s had a stand, visitors have “slowly become more casual” but “decent race people” still wanted to dress up. “20 years ago there was more wool and tweed and less sneakers and down coats,” she said.

Three 22-year-old friends from Nottingham had taken different fashion paths. Jake Yeomans and Kaine Booth wore dinner jackets and bow ties – and sneakers. Her pal Josh Brown had opted for a track top with sleek brogues.

Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk from Hull.

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

Alan Robinson and Paul Norfolk from Hull wore striking white suits with red stars. “It’s the biggest show on grass. We celebrate the best horses in the world running here, so you have to dress smartly.”

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