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What is Cheltenham Festival Ladies’ Day and how did it start?

Every year on Cheltenham Festival Ladies’ Day, attendees flock to the racecourse in their most colourful dresses and elaborate hats for a fashion spectacle.

The style extravaganza falls on the second day of the festival, which begins on Tuesday (14 March) this year. Ladies’ Day will fall on Wednesday 15 March.

While there’s no obligation to be dressed to the nines on Ladies’ Day, the long-standing tradition is a chance for race-goers – particularly women – to see and be seen in their best clothes and heels.

Members of the royal family also fans of the day, with the Princess Royal’s daughter Zara Tindall making regular appearances at the festival alongside her husband Mike Tindall, as well as Queen Consort Camilla and Princess Anne.

Other celebrities who can be expected to attend include model and TV presenter Rosie Tapner and ex-Love Island contestant Frankie Foster, who have both been named style ambassadors at the festival this year.

Last year, fashion designer Jade Holland Cooper and husband Julian Dunkerton, the founder of Superdry, were spotted at the racecourse in fashionable ‘fits. TV presenter Carol Vorderman and reality stars Georgia Toffolo and Olivia Bentley are also frequent visitors.

Here’s everything you need to know about Cheltenham Festival Ladies’ Day:

How did Ladies’ Day start?

The origins of Ladies’ Days at the races can be traced back to the Royal Ascot. But when the races began in the early 1700s, dress codes only existed for men, who were expected to wear black coats, white cravats and pantaloons at the races.

June 1922:  Major and Mrs Hedges stride purposefully about in their finery at Ascot (Getty Images)
June 1922: Major and Mrs Hedges stride purposefully about in their finery at Ascot (Getty Images)

According to Ascot Racecourse, it wasn’t until the 1830s when Queen Victoria donned a headpiece that shielded her face from observers (called a porter bonnet) that hats became a must-wear accessory on the racecourse.

It later became a community catwalk of sorts to show off new trends and fashions. It was only in 2012 that organisers decided a formal style guide was required for race-goers, which included rules for womenswear such as hemlines that must reach just above the knee or lower and straps on tops or dresses must be at least one-inch wide. Hats became a mandatory accessory, with strict rules around what size they can be.

A couple drink champagne during Ladies Day on the third day of Royal Ascot at the Ascot Racecourse on June 17, 2004 (Getty)
A couple drink champagne during Ladies Day on the third day of Royal Ascot at the Ascot Racecourse on June 17, 2004 (Getty)

What is the dress code for Cheltenham Festival Ladies’ Day?

Unlike the Royal Ascot, Cheltenham Festival is more relaxed and does not have an official dress code. It’s only official piece of guidance on what to wear it to “come dressed to feel your best”.

Fashion on Ladies Day at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 11, 2020 in Cheltenham (Getty Images)
Fashion on Ladies Day at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 11, 2020 in Cheltenham (Getty Images)

However, it does have some recommendations. The course advises people to be prepared for the weather, which could turn at any moment. Umbrellas and layers are highly recommended during changeable weather.

Fancy dress is encouraged as it adds “colour and fun to our racedays”, but the course adds: “Please avoid inappropriate or offensive outfits, as anything deemed vulgar or derogatory may be refused entry”.

According to Cheltenham Guides, jeans are not allowed on the racecourse and hats “are required”. However, there appear to be no rules around how big the hat must be.