While the majority of this summer’s journey is all about me following in the footsteps of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay – going where Cornelia and Emily went, doing the same things they did whenever possible – there have also been times where I ventured off and did things that the girls didn’t.
Royal Ascot was one of those occasions.
Full disclosure: I have absolutely no interest in horse racing, but I am a big fan of the movie My Fair Lady and, in particular, the scene where Audrey Hepburn attends the Ascot opening day in that liquid silver gown with the enormous, simply delectable confection of a hat.
This summer was my first opportunity to attend Ascot, or, more accurately, it was when I discovered that there was no mystery or magic or secret handshake, to going to the races. One simply got online and ordered tickets. Even for the oh-so-exclusive Royal Enclosure, yes, there were tickets available inside that inner sanctum. As lovely as that would have been for my first time going to the race, to be in the Eliza Doolittle Royal Enclosure, I was pretty certain that I hadn’t brought anything elegant enough to wear for that level of formality. So I purchased a ticket in the Queen Anne enclosure, which appeared to be geared toward a younger, more lively crowd. And as long as I wasn’t going to be in the Royal Enclosure anyway, I opted to attend on Ladies Day instead of Opening Day because it also sounded more fun.
When it came to the check-out webpage, the first drop down menu item was “Title”, which offered not just the standard choices of “Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss”, but everything from “Admiral” to “Dowager Duchess” to “The Marquess of”. For a wild moment, I considered listing myself as “Viscountess”, but then got panicked that there might be “poser police” who would bust me for falsely claiming to be a member of the peerage.
Once the ticket was booked, all I needed was a really good hat. Ladies always wear hats to Ascot. Audrey Hepburn had worn a hat. A really good hat.
I spent the better part of a day in the stores on Oxford St, and finally settled on a quite pleasing fascinator in electric orange – less Eliza Doolittle and more Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, which was where I had first heard of a fascinator. Of course, everyone knows – right? – that a fascinator is basically a headband adorned with frills, feathers and frippery, formed into a wonderfully sculptural bit of nonsense. Well, I was simply over the moon about mine, especially when the saleslady wrapped it up in its own hatbox.
Ever since my arrival in London two weeks earlier, I had been seeing numerous women walking along the streets carrying hatboxes, and now it was intensely satisfying to be joining their ranks. I felt transported to a different time, when ladies routinely wore hats and gloves and pretty dresses – so glamorous. I suspect it was like how Cornelia and Emily felt when they purchased their white rabbit fur coats, and carried home their enormous boxes from the store.
On the day of the race, I took the train from Waterloo station, which was a treat in itself. Everyone was dressed for Ascot, and the champagne and various beverages were flowing. There was laughter and high spirits even with a standing room only crowd in the train car. In no time we arrived at Ascot, and I found my way to the Queen Anne enclosure in the center of the racetrack oval. There was music and food and cocktails. And milling around amongst the crowd was like being in the middle of an enormous, incredible fashion show. It was all quite splendid.
I managed to maneuver into a spot on the front line in time to see the royals arrive in a procession of carriages. It had taken me almost 30 years to see a royal in person, and now within the span of five days, I had seen a whole pack of them – twice!
I was struck especially by the notion that I was seeing not only the reigning monarch, the only one most everyone alive today has ever known, but two future kings – Prince Charles and Prince William – as well. But from what I could see, their turns would have to wait for a good while – Queen Elizabeth II was looking bright as a penny.
I mingled and chatted with a number of fellow attendees, sampled the dainty sandwiches and pastries, had a couple of glasses of champagne, and never again made it close to the track to see the races. Occasionally there would be the low rumble of horses’ hooves, and some cheers, and I might glance at a TV monitor to see the finish. But that was pretty much the extent of my experience with the races themselves. As I mentioned earlier, horse racing really isn’t my thing.
By mid-afternoon, I was ready to head back to London. I left before the races were done and the after-parties began, but I needed to get out of my shoes.
I had seen the fashions. I had worn my fascinator. That is what Ascot had been about for me – the pomp and pageantry of it all. And I had not been disappointed. My day had been perfect and complete.
There is a wee bit more to the story of my day at the races, involving the train ride back to London with a Bafta Award-winning actor dressed as a woman, who led me to consider, for the first time ever, the notion of dating a transvestite. But I think I’ll save that bit for the book.
Top Row: So pretty, so prissy, my fascinator in its hatbox; Audrey at Ascot; a lively morning commute on the train.
Bottom Row: The only horses I saw on race day were the Queen’s; a proper dandy, surrounded by hats; end of the day selfie, and I just want to be out of my shoes.