How the Melbourne Cup led to the birth of a fashion legend

As Princess Diana's nieces add a royal touch to the annual event this year, we look back at how fashion at the races evolved over the years.

For a century, Melbourne Cup day at Flemington was the place to see and be seen. The only venue in the country where the well heeled happily rubbed shoulders with the down at heel, the one thing they all had in common (outside of a love of racing) was the desire to look their best; donning their finest Melbourne Cup fashion they wore suits, frocks and bonnets to mark the occasion. 

But by the early 1960s the allure was beginning to wane and female racegoers were dropping off in droves. Until a sub-committee from the Victoria Racing Club came upon an idea: Why not start a competition to “find the smartest-dressed woman at the Carnival”? 
And that’s how a creative attempt to “woo more women to the races” would come to change the shape of Australian fashion for decades to come.

The five winners of Fashions on the Field 1964 at Flemington Races.

With two categories (one for outfits purchased for under £30, one for those under £50) as well as an award for Most Elegant Hat, the prize pool was valued at close to £7000 – the major prize a Ford Futura motor car. 

TV cameras whirled as women jostled for the attention of the judges, the horses almost a footnote at an event. It was, declared Sir Rupert Steele, Chairman of the Competition Committee, “a very successful promotion both for racing and for fashion”. 

Jean Shrimpton, an English fashion model, attending the Melbourne Cup in the 1960s.

As the 1960s forged on, so too did the heights of fashion, most notably in 1965 at Derby Day when British model Jean Shrimpton wore a (for the times) scandalously short skirt without a hat, stockings or gloves. The Weekly was there too, to capture our favourite outfits. 

November 7 1962 issue cover of The Weekly.

The 1960s were a boom time for both fashion and the economy and the high glamour of the Victoria Racing Club’s (VRC) Fashions on the Field competition reflected that trend. 

But as the 1970s dawned, the economic climate plunged and after struggling to find sponsorship the VRC sadly shuttered the event. While there were other fashion competitions held, none held a candle to the original … until a new decade full of glitz, glamour and excess began. 

1970s romantic fashion.

In 1980, a fully realised Fashions on the Field returned along with an even bigger prize pool, celebrity judges and a blaze of accompanying media coverage. The contest was now open to both the public and the members arena, and in 1983 Myer came on board as the major sponsor. 

Milliner Molly Icasriel, 1986, Flemington.

This association saw the number of entrants quadruple, tempted both by the fashionable judges and a prize pool of over $30,000. 

In the 1990s Classic Racewear and Classic Hats categories replaced the traditionally price-pointed awards. While Myer would hand over its sponsorship in 1993, by the end of that decade it was back and the prize pool had shot up to more than $100,000 – with lavish overseas trips to Paris, Hong Kong and Tahiti  bolstered with $5000 spending money and a $10,000 wardrobe. The event continued to elegantly evolve as time marched on. 

1999 Melbourne Cup Day, held at Flemington Racecourse.

In 2001 Men’s Classic Racewear was established. From 2005 emerging designers showcased their Cup Day creations for the Design Award. Headwear was celebrated with the creation of a stand-alone, invite-only Millinery Award on Oaks Day in 2006. 

Delta Goodrem during 2021 Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse 2021.

While other stylish states joined in from afar, a National Winner was declared for the first time in 2012. 

Today, the VRC has once again moved with the times. The major Women’s and Men’s Racewear Awards became unisex: Best Dressed and Best Suited, with digital entries open to the public. The Lillian Frank AM MBE Millinery Award is open to a global audience to showcase their creativity, and the Emerging Designer Award gives the winner an invaluable international experience and the opportunity to take their work to new heights.

Princess Diana’s nieces, Lady Eliza and Lady Amelia have also revealed to Vogue their plans to attend Melbourne Cup as the Victoria Racing Club’s 2023 Ambassador’s, adding a royal element to the fashion lineup we can expect.

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