IN THE hit Hollywood musical My Fair Lady the ultimate test for Eliza Doolittle is a trip to Ascot. The Covent Garden flower girl, a “deliciously low” guttersnipe, wants to climb the social ladder and so, she must learn to speak like a lady, act like a lady and dress like a lady.
It’s all a lot frothier than Shaw’s Edwardian morality play Pygmalion but the songs aren’t half bad. In fact, this Lerner and Loewe number sums up Ascot still:
“Ev’ry duke and earl and peer is here
“Ev’ryone who should be here is here
“What a smashing, positively dashing
“Spectacle: the Ascot op’ning day”
Of course Eliza, gives herself away in spectacular style. Despite her borrowed finery the mask slips. She looks like a duchess but sounds like a dustman: “C’mon Dover, move your bloomin’ arse!” she cries.
You can take the girl out of Poplar but you can’t take Poplar out of the girl.
Nowadays, the more mangled your Cockney vowels, the better. Snobbery has been turned on its head. Eliza would do just fine, so long as she could flash the cash.
But one rule most certainly still applies at Royal Ascot – dressing appropriately, and this year the organisers aren’t taking any chances. They’ve issued strict new guidelines on how to dress. They’ve installed their very own fashion police. A team of dress code assistants armed with baskets of pashminas, fascinators and ties are manning the gates. Visitors who fail to meet the code – shoulders and midriffs covered, jackets and ties on, headgear in place – risk a bruising brush with the new enforcers. One poor woman, dressed in a strappy scarlet number was issued with a clashing lime-green scarf. Worse still, her husband had to suffer the indignity of putting on a nylon tie plucked from the bottom of a minder’s basket. And no, that’s not Cockney rhyming slang. In the royal enclosure, things step up a gear – fascinators are banned and ladies must put down a refundable £50 deposit for a hat.
The revised rules follow growing criticism of the bad-taste outfits which have threatened to sully the reputation of Europe’s flagship race meeting in recent years. Having seen some of the sartorial choices on show at the Grand National, who can blame Ascot officials for getting on their high horse?
They’ve declared war on miniskirts, lycra, plunging necklines and fake tans. Muffin tops should definitely not be seen wobbling when the favourite romps home, Pimms is for sipping, not downing, and race-goers may only be sick after they leave. (The last bit might not be in the rule book but that’s what they mean.)
Even Channel 4 News debated the new Ascot rules this week, somewhere between the violence in Syria and the economic woes of the eurozone. They pitted former footballer’s wife Lizzie Cundy against the woman who teaches etiquette to coarse young women on the TV show Ladette to Lady.
Both women agreed that Ascot was all about the fashion but clashed over the need for standards. The glamorous Lizzie complained bitterly that she had to lengthen her skirt.
She obviously hasn’t been paying attention to the changing mood in the Wag camp. The wives and girlfriends of the England squad have been rather restrained in Poland during Euro 2012. Gone are the tiny skirts, giant sunglasses and breast implants of Baden-Baden six years ago. New tournament, new look. Even the permanently bronzed Coleen Rooney looked a shade paler as she arrived for a mini-shopping break in Krakow. Sorry, I mean as she arrived in Krakow to cheer Wayne on. But like a modern-day Eliza Doolittle, Coleen is a regular at the races. An Aintree girl at heart, she’s still the hot favourite in the fashion stakes. She probably wouldn’t be seen dead swathed in a pashmina at the stuffy Royal Ascot anyway. But if Ascot has taught us anything this year, it’s how to get more, not less exposure.
It’s been a master class in hype and marketing. It banks on the women who parade through its paddock in their glad rags and really, who cares about the horse flesh anyway?