The Genteel
April 21, 2021


Melbourne Cup 2011 Judging. Source:
Amy Robson, 2012 winner of  
Fashions on the Field.

Britain has Royal Ascot, America has the Kentucky Derby, but Australia has the Melbourne Cup. The highlight of the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival - a selection of horse races held between September and November - the Melbourne Cup is one of the country's most beloved and captivating, annual events. Although the custom of hitting a horse with a stick (for entertainment purposes) might seem archaic, it's the Cup's pageantry that draws punters. And more often than not, the event is less about horse racing than it is about the exquisite fashion on the sidelines.

The good, the bad and the ugly are among the hundreds of thousands of racegoers who flock to Flemington Racecourse on the first Tuesday of November each year. However, for some, the choice of frock and hat are more than just a technicality of the event. Celebrating its 50th year, the Fashions on the Field competition, sponsored by Australian department store, Myer, has remained steadfast - an iconic and revered celebration of Australian fashion, garnering the title of, "Australia's largest and most prestigious outdoor fashion event."

At its inception in 1962, Fashions on the Field was devised to "woo" ladies to the races. The contest retained a nonchalant, no frills approach and encouraged women to dress their "smartest" but "within economic restraints." Titles were given categorically by cost: a prize for outfits £30 and under, and another for outfits £50 and over. But the sponsor-reliant fashion event faltered in the wake of the economic hardship of the '70s and was replaced by several smaller Cup events. Nevertheless, renewed economic prosperity and unrelenting popularity meant Fashions on the Field was swiftly reinstated by 1980.

...the accolade of National Women's Racewear Winner, is a coveted and much sought after title that women from all six Australian states valiantly teeter down runways to pursue. A full-fledged hobby, contestants risk life and credit card year-after-year, to perfect their outfit...

Today, the accolade of National Women's Racewear Winner, is a coveted and much sought after title that women from all six Australian states valiantly teeter down runways to pursue. A full-fledged hobby, contestants risk life and credit card year-after-year, to perfect their outfit, with an estimated A$27 million spent on fashions for the field.

Back in February, this year's Victorian state finalist, Lauren Andrews, took to the drawing-board back to ensure her ensemble had the edge, while others wore outfits that were 12 months in the making. Meanwhile, a few bold Aussie lads bravely participated in the Men's Racewear category. Currently in its 12th year, more than 150 men congregated pre-Cup on Derby Day in their dashing, Sunday best, vying for the ultimate menswear prize.

The frivolous commotion of today's field fashions may well have evolved beyond "smart," but statement looks are a racewear institution. In 1965, British supermodel Jean Shrimpton attended the Cup sans hat, gloves and - some dare say - skirt. In a scandal that made headlines both nationally and internationally, Shrimpton donned a dress with a hemline four inches above her knee. Local media reported that, "If the skies had rained acid not a well-dressed woman there would have given the Shrimp an umbrella."

More recently, shorts, pants and jumpsuits have infiltrated the playing field, testing the tolerance of traditionalists. However, this year's overall winner, Amy Robson - a Queensland-based paralegal, representing New South Wales - has again put a new face on the competition, winning in a thrift store creation. Based on a second-hand bag found in a vintage store, the peplum-dress was a labour of love for Robson and her grandmother.

Needless to say, nothing adds more fuel to the fire of changing sartorial tides than an emerging trend - or designer. Accommodating this field, is the Fashions on the Field Design Award: an exclusive, invite-only competition, which promotes emerging designers in racewear.

Jean Shrimpton at the Melbourne
Cup in 1965.
Source: firsthouseontheright.

Craig Braybrook, a former Project Runway Australia contestant, won this year's award with an outfit inspired by the '60s, "It's the 50th year of fashions on the field and so I wanted to hark back to the 1960s but with a bit of twist," elaborated Braybrook, to the Sydney Morning Herald. Over the years, Fashions on the Field has paid homage to quality design, hosting a myriad of designer royalty on the judging panel: Madame Carven, namesake of La Maison Carven (1971), former Celine chairwoman and CEO Madame Nan Legeai (1985) and Sass and Bide designer, Sarah-Jane Clarke (2012). 

However, it's not just the public racegoers who are on fashion watch; cohorts of fashionable celebrities are flown in from around the world each year to increase the event's prestige. This year's notable faces extended from actresses to royalty. The Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall roamed the crowds, with the Duchess wearing a Philip Treacy original. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman impressed on Derby Day, donning an outfit reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

Although the official competition doesn't extend past the Flemington track, Fashions on the Field transcends the racecourse. Cup-associated events across the country - in offices, restaurants and schools - hold their celebration of merry banter to the same fashionable standard. Be it a fascinator or a head-to-toe ensemble, the fervour, of what could be seen as Australia's day for fashion, is contagious. The essence of the competition may be, "...for women and men to indulge their passion for fashion," but its influence shapes the wardrobe of a nation; even if only for a day.



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