Fashions on the Field

From the first Melbourne Cup, Australia’s premier racing event has showcased cutting-edge design as well as transitions from the old to the new. Fashion designers and milliners consider the Spring Racing Carnival a most important annual event, and it is fashion that attracts many thousands of men and women to the course each year.

‘Fashions on the Field … will be a challenge to the ingenuity, economic sense and fashion sense of Australian women.’ - The Sun, 7 September 1962

Each year, hundreds of women, men and children enter ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition, established by the VRC in 1962. The idea sprang from an earlier fashion competition held at Flemington for the 100th running of the Melbourne Cup in 1960.

Fashion had always been an important part of big racing events, and the competition was originally established to encourage the presence of women by identifying the most elegant and well-dressed woman at the racetrack. The competition became a major attraction for both competitors and spectators alike.

Australian colonial fashion dominated the scene at the first Melbourne Cup in 1861. Women wore long skirts with large bustles under which were beautifully trimmed corsets and petticoats. Men’s suits were generally black and the best were beautifully tailored. Traditional hats gave way to straw boaters, a popular hat late in the century.

The turn of the century saw a great boost in manufacturing and clothing emporiums in Australia. As the 1900s progressed, women’s race-wear changed to reflect the shape of the body. Large bustles were replaced by corsets, and the long skirts were bell-shaped.

Soft pastel colours were fashionable, as were delicate lace and chiffon trimmings.
Even during the difficult years of World War I, race-goers attended the Melbourne Cup dressed to impress! Men wore tailored suits and jackets with high waists and unpadded shoulders were introduced by younger men of society.

The 1920s presented an exciting era in fashion. Women began wearing ‘flapper’ dresses with waists dropped to the hipline and made of fabrics designed to allow more freedom of movement. During this decade hemlines began to rise until they sat just below the knee. Men wore suits with waistcoats and the fedora and top hat styles became popular.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the times of plenty had gone. Clothing was mended and patched before being replaced and even though styles were changing, less ready-to-wear garments were purchased. Women’s clothing at the races became more classic and restrained. A softer, more feminine style replaced the boyish, flapper look of the twenties.

Men’s suits were tailored to create the image of a large torso with squared shoulders and tapered sleeves. The double-breasted suit, the precursor of the modern business suit, became popular. Hats were worn at an angle. Towards the end of the decade, turbans emerged.

Fashion became even more basic during World War II. Stylish garments were difficult to obtain and clothing and materials were severely rationed to support the war effort. There was plenty of innovation and recycling of older clothing. Men’s trousers lost their multiple pleats and cuffs. Women became adept at transforming men’s suits into suits they could wear, since the men were not wearing the garments while they were away at war.

The end of the war and rationing brought a dramatic change in fashion. In reaction to the severely tailored garments they wore during the war, women turned to full skirts that used many yards of fabric to create a feminine, romantic image. Men’s fashion, too, favoured full-cut trousers and long coats in a range of colours – a sign of opulence and luxury. Hand-painted ties were also popular.

The 1950s was an interesting decade for fashion. Wealthy Australians sought to follow European trends presented by the leading fashion houses, while the middle class tended to wear suits with hats, gloves and accessories. The influence of the rock and roll era was evident with young women wearing brightly coloured dresses with full skirts.

As Australian fashion houses and chains developed, the profile of fashion at the Spring Racing Carnival increased with the introduction of the ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition at Flemington in 1962. From this point onwards, fashion was elevated to new significance at the Cup. Initially two women’s categories were held in the competition, one for race-wear that cost no more than £30, and one for outfits worth more than £50.

The 1965 sensation caused by Jean Shrimpton’s mini-dress had a significant impact on what was acceptable race-wear at the time, although the fashions of the ‘swinging 60s’ were not really seen at the Carnival until the late 1960s to early 1970s. Men’s suits were generally less structured and tailored but the wearing of a hat was still almost mandatory for the well-dressed man.

During the 1970s, flared pant suits, long flowing dresses and mini-dresses became popular with younger race-goers, while older members continued to wear more conservative dresses and suits. Some race-goers simply shunned fashion in this era for conspicuous informality, although the Victoria Racing Club maintained dress standards in the members’ reserve. During the 1970s, the ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition was modified several times, partly due to decreasing sponsorship and a weakened economy. Alternative fashion competitions were held on Cup Day throughout the 1970s until the ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition was reinstated in 1981.

The 1980s was the era of ‘power dressing’, of women’s jackets with shoulder pads. Ruffled dresses and wide brimmed hats were also popular and this trend continued into the next decade. The 1990s saw the re-emergence of the 1950s classic suit, pencil skirts and dresses made from colourful silks.

‘Fashions on the Field’ reasserted itself as a highlight of the racing calendar during the 1990s and 2000s, and in 2001 the men’s ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition was introduced.

Fashion at the Cup today is a mix of classic suits, flowing dresses and creative one-off outfits. Men embrace their own passion for fashion, wearing bright or classic suits, ties and shirts and a range of stylish headwear.

Fashions off the field now extend to the many temporary marquees positioned around the track and provide an opportunity for invited guests to showcase their designer ware. Celebrities are sponsored by designers to present their latest creations, along with milliners and jewellers.

Fashion History
Hats & Milliners

Hats & Milliners

From the first Melbourne Cup at Flemington, both men and women have worn hats to the races. While many go to the races to admire the horses, others go to admire each other and their hats! Wearing hats was commonplace in sunny Australia, but the races demanded something more elegant and fashionable.

Fashion history
Glamour and fashion fun

Glamour and fashion fun

Each year, tens of thousands of Australian and international race-goers ‘frock-up’ for the various events of the Spring Racing Carnival. It is an opportunity for fashion designers and milliners to show off their latest creations and a chance for guests to enjoy being fashionably attired as they mingle at the races. Women wearing beautiful dresses, men in well-cut suits or top hats and tails, and smartly dressed children take part in the fashion extravaganza.