Fifty frocking years

Thirty-odd years ago, on a hot little patch of lawn between Flemington racetrack's Members' enclosure and winning post, I judged my first "Fashions on the Field". There were four of us on that windy, unsettling day, all clipboards, plastic chairs and lofty ideals. (Or was that just me?) Being the women's editor of a small regional newspaper, The Geelong Advert-iser, qualified me as "expert" enough to judge — or maybe they were just light on visiting internationals that year.

I can't remember my first three fellow judges but, three decades on, the roll call of fashion arbiters is impressive: Lillian Frank, Captain Peter Janson, Perri Cutten, Geoff Bade, Lisa Barron, Peter Jago, Richard Nylon, Freddie Fox, Stephen Jones, Eva Longoria, Zandra Rhodes, Heath Ledger, Patricia Field . . . and dozens more.

But I digress.

I remember feeling excited, important and a bit embarrassed. (I was very young.) I had never seen a spectacle like this — like a beauty contest, but ABSOLUTELY NOT a beauty contest, I was told. There was something faintly undignified about it. On the back of Women's Lib and some fairly muscular waves of feminism, the idea of judging women by their appearance, even by their taste in clothes, was sticky, tricky personal politics. It felt, kind of, sort of, a little bit ... wrong.

But what the hell. (I was a flexible feminist.) There was champagne! Free tickets to the races! And platters of crustless white-bread sandwiches filled with a marvellously claggy, salty substance called "chicken". I listened attentively as Fashion on the Field's strict criteria were explained — "appropriate for the day", "appropriate for the weather". The words "hat", "gloves", "handbag" and "hosiery", particularly, stuck.

Then the ladies were mustered for inspection. An exotic little cluster — big, small, young, old, wide, thin, hats, handbags, suits, spring coats, dyed-to-match shoes. They had come from the 'burbs, earnestly, carefully, joyfully frocked to the nines. My reserve dissolved; the "wrongness" dissipated. Ladies, indeed. Wonderful, fashionable, well-groomed, manicured, pedicured, coiffed, fabulous, proper, ordinary, everyday ladies. I thought my first Fashions on the Field was the simplest, most gloriously gorgeous expression of civilisation I had ever seen.

Thrilled to the gills, I watched these ordinary women expressing their extraordinary selves with all the trappings and tools of fashion: frocks, accessories, hairdos, make-up, swinging hips and graceful poses.

I can't remember what the prize was that first year, but it must have been a cracker to persuade some of them to make the terrifying walk across Flemington's flattened grass and on to the low, chipboard catwalk. (These days, the prize pool is $400,000 and Flemington's FOF stage is enclosed, two-storey, with corporate facilities, television hosts and televisual capabilities.) Every careful step they took across the grass was scrutinised by us, the judges, by fellow entrants and by a ring of motley racegoers, including a fringe of beer-waving yobs yelling, "Kwwwwooorr! She's 'awright! Nooooo! Not that one! Phhwwoor! This one!" and other helpful advice.

Some women shook visibly but smiled on, as regally as queens, or as coy and nervously as girls. There were some who stood out — professional models snuck in by opportunistic designers. (That was, theoretically at least, outlawed by a professionals competition in later years.) These veterans of the catwalk stalked, smiled like cover girls and turned as deftly as music-box ballerinas.

But their ordinary fellow contestants didn't appear to mind the expert cuckoos in their midst. In the queues, and later in what we affectionately dubbed the "holding pens" built to accommodate hundreds of waiting entrants, there was a perfumed, perfectly feminine camaraderie that transcended any myths and media beat-ups about bitching and catfights in the FOF ranks. "You look gorgeous!" and "I love your hat!" were more typical of the exchanges between strangers waiting for their turn. "Hold up your number! Smile! Watch the step! You're next!"

Three decades since that spring, including two spent writing about fashion for The Age, Fashions on the Field is still the highlight of my year. I have written about it near-on 30 times and my admiration for these women who play and indulge their passion for fashion as ardently as their menfolk play and follow sport has never faltered.

This is my final Fashions on the Field story for The Age. But I will be there at Flemington and at Caulfield and even in a smattering of the country towns where FOF's joyful, spirit-lifting effect spreads every spring.

Five decades of trackside fashion

FASHIONS on the Field was a bold concept thrashed out in the Victoria Racing Club boardroom in 1962 to lure women back to Flemington.

Why it was suddenly needed isn't exactly clear. Perhaps a sea of cheap check suits and pork-pie hats in a confetti hail of ripped betting slips and a pall of tobacco smoke prompted the drastic solution.

At first, some men — particularly in the media and those serious about secret chaps' business — baulked. But the idea of dispensing prizes, including new cars and jewellery, to women willing to frock up nicely and parade for a brace of "expert" strangers proved a catalyst that glamourised tracksides around the world. In the next five decades, racewear evolved into its own fashion genre, loosely hitched to trends but more beholden to fancy notions about what a civilised lay-dee should really look like.

1960s

Fashion's decade of Dior-esque attention to breasts, waistlines and hips backlashed in the 1960s. Flemington's young women joined the revolution in the blocky, architecturally tailored, zipped shifts and suits popularised by designers such as Courreges, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Mary Quant.

The silhouettes mostly ignored the body beneath with a slick overlay of chic that made everybody, all shapes and ages, look quite marvellous. By the decade's fag-end, the miniskirt's natural, breathtaking zenith was also being challenged by a smattering of penultimate groovers.

1970s

Racewear trends oscillated with the decade's top news stories: Women's Liberation (pant suits), Haight-Ashbury and the Love Revolution (looser frocks, the midi, the maxi), the rise of millionaire jet-setters and rock stars as an aspirational class (smart Parisien ready-to-wear). Hemlines rose and fell. But, notably, when they rose, they shot right up to a girl's knicker elastic. Only the ubiquitous knee-high, block-heeled boots below could distract bewildered beholders faced, for the first time, with a mesmerising handspan of Cottontails. A decade after the ''Jean Shrimpton incident'' of 1965, when the English minx turned up for Derby Day without hat, hosiery or gloves, those accessories had also been firmly ensconced in the racewear rulebook.

1980s

Racewear came into its own. The formality and structure - the sheer armoury - of '80s linebacker shoulders, tight pencil skirts, mega-foofed hairdos and industrial-grade bling fed into the ''dressed-up daywear'' racewear genre with a glorious logic.

The hats, gloves, dyed-to-match handbags and shoes, knuckle-duster pearls and chandelier earrings fit like a jigsaw with the ''Dynasty-esque'' racegoer's spring carnival wardrobe - no problem, dah-ling!

1990s

Silhouettes were slack, silky minimalist and artfully accessorised with flat shoes and the exotic sinamay picture hats being produced by Melbourne's burgeoning millinery industry.

The 1990s were by no means dominated by this oxymoronic revolution of ''elegance and comfort'' (a certain style of tailored kink-waisted suit was equally popular and manifest in various hem lengths across the decade), but the style is fondly remembered by those who swanned across Flemington's lawns in flat-footed ease and ensembles that were as comfy as jimjams and chic as Parisien couture.

2000s

Flemington's first poppets in string-strapped, knicker-flasher frocklets were spotted. A new generation of racegoer had flooded out of the sparkly nightclubs and year-12 formals and on to trackside lawns. (''Coowoool!'') Fashion editors, including this one, pecked them mercilessly for not understanding racewear's revered ''dressy daywear'' rules - ''Too short! Too stringy! Too rude! Where's your handbag? Where's your mother?''

But like any significant counter-cultural swell, good and bad, they left their mark and the host population simply had to yield to ''progress''. By 2006, a pretty RMIT graduate named Sarah Schofield had won Fashions on the Field in a self-made outfit with NO HANDBAG. By the end of the decade, all was (sort of) forgiven and a new age had dawned.

The Joyous Young Ones met racewear's strict sartorial brief halfway and the fashion editors conceded straplessness, knicker-flasher hemlines and carefully applied faux tan were not always a hideous thing.

Now

Fashions on the Field is a slick, staged production with online entry, proper audience seating, professional hosts, televisual infrastructure and, this year, a prize pool worth $400,000 with a Toyota Lexus convertible cherry on top. You might assume the joy had been drained out of the event. But you would be wrong. In fact, a strange thing has happened as racewear's rules of civility, femininity, glamour and grooming - not to mention its lady-like triumvirate of hat, gloves and handbag - relaxed in the wake of those joyous young invaders mentioned earlier and the arrival of plane-loads of Sydney celebrities in string straps, tight frocks and tropical tans. Legions of young women have become passionate about the old-fashioned rules of racewear, returning fastidiously to the fully frocked sartorial values treasured in the 1950s and '60s.

A new pro-chic revolution is well under way. Praise the Fashion Goddess.

From: The Age

The story Fifty frocking years first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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