Cheltenham has become a chance for fashion-conscious country types to show off a different type of glamour
I’ll confess, I’m a bit scared of horses. They’ve got such big blunt teeth, haven’t they?
Yet here I am at the Cheltenham Festival, trotting around with Britain’s equine elite. Needless to say I’m not actually here for the racing.
You see I may not have a hot tip for the Champion Hurdle, but I am into fashion and there’s a lot going on at the UK’s eventing circuit beyond the obvious tack. The Cheltenham aesthetic, dubbed “rural vogue” by regulars, is not in the least bit affected by mainstream fashion.
The look is unique, and especially distinct from that at other meets. At Royal Ascot, the scene can look a little like a sweet shop, its audience washed in pastels and fruity brights. At Cheltenham, the colour du jour is glorious mud.
An upscale browny-green coat should be the focal point of any spectator’s outfit – trenches, capes and blazers are all permitted. Once your outerwear is secured, it’s simply a case of accessorising with further sludgy-hued items – suede boots, a top-handle bag and a pheasant feather cap will finish the look perfectly and, crucially, feel practical in the iffy March weather.
As a Londoner, it’s not my usual bag (literally, I’ve borrowed the whole outfit) but I’ve gone all in for my visit. While my husband raises an eyebrow at this show pony look before I leave home, I feel at ease among the tweeds and tinnies herd departing Paddington Station.
On arrival at Prestbury Park, which has been the home of racing in Cheltenham since the 1900s, I am fully immersed. The new generation of glossy equestrian patrons (with great teeth, incidentally) spans ITV racing royalty Rosie Tapner and Francesca Cumani to actual royalty Zara Tindall.
There is also a brilliant amount of faux country imposterism happening. Those who, like me, are in it for the day out – if Matt Hancock, Gareth Gates, Carol Vorderman and the cast of Love Island can pop on a herringbone jacket and fit in, surely anyone can?
In the past 10 years, as celebrities have taken over the Cotswolds, Cheltenham has become a chance for fashion-conscious country types to show off a different category of glamour; the aforementioned “rural vogue”.
In that respect, Cheltenham now matches up to Ascot.
The dress code is so distinct that everyone knows exactly what to wear for the occasion. Scanning the stands, I can see that all in attendance see race days as a chance to get dressed up. The relaxing of rules for 2023 by The Jockey Club (including the allowing of jeans and trainers) in the name of “democratisation” has deterred no one when it comes to styling.
“It’s not about what you spend, it’s about enjoying the sense of occasion,” a local who visits annually tells me. The truly posh wear the same clothes every year – it’s something of a brag to say that, if your jacket smells a little musty, it’s because it has been in the family for generations.
I speak to younger men and women who have borrowed from their parents and chat in the stands to mid-lifers who are re-wearing pieces that they bought at the festival decades ago and still love now, because the look is timeless.
For those who don’t have something vintage in the wardrobe, there are also new options aplenty to purchase.
Over the past few years the Shopping Village at Cheltenham has evolved into something of a retail destination – as integral to the experience as the betting and a fizzy lunch at Alberta’s Run. Some 58 country-focussed British businesses (including fashion labels Troy London and Dubarry, plus interiors specialists such as pheasant feather artist Clare Brownlow) set out to entice the 470,000 attendees during the four-day event.
What they sell isn’t cheap – it’s quality wool clothing and suede boots and handbags, mostly made in England. But here they have found their audience; In 2022, on average, each guest at Cheltenham dropped an astonishing £697 during their visit.
Holland Cooper has the marquee spot in the village – an 108 square metre patch that is buzzing with guests between races. It sells many of its £1,200 trench coats, but knits and accessories move quickly too.
“Starting from £35, we have something for every budget,” the founder Jade Holland Cooper says proudly.
Her Cheltenham-based label is one of several new British brands that has made a fortune by betting on fresh interest in the heritage look. Holland Cooper launched her business on the eventing circuit in 2011, with a stall selling tweed miniskirts at the Badminton Horse Trials.
In 2022 she reported sales of £22.7 million. Customers book their personal styling appointments at her Charlton Kings flagship boutique as early as January to ensure they are race day ready. For some niche retailers, Cheltenham is one of the most profitable events of the year.
“We see a huge spike in revenue in March which isn’t far behind the Christmas period,” explains Alice Leet-Cook, co-founder of millinery label Hicks & Brown. Leet-Cook’s feathered caps are, indeed, everywhere in the stands. When the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh become valued customers, word spreads quickly around the country cliques.
“Seventy per cent of the products we sell at Cheltenham are [Kate’s] Suffolk Fedoras, priced at £99.” The Norfolk-based brand Fairfax & Favor occupies another prime real estate plot at Cheltenham – exactly a decade since it was founded by Marcus Fairfax Fountaine and Felix Favor Parker as a stall selling shoes at the Holkham Country Fair.
“Cheltenham gives an incredible opportunity for shoppers to see our clothes on ‘real models’ walking around the racecourse and to gain inspiration,” says Parker of why being caught in the moment makes people want to shop on the spot.
“We did roughly 500 orders at Cheltenham last year, with the average order value coming in at £170. Our Regina boots are our hero product, along with our boot tassels.”
Lots of brands launch new products exclusively at Cheltenham – Fairfax & Favor is selling its new outerwear here for the first time. Carol Vorderman, on Wednesday, wore a Sienna cape that we can assume she bought off the brand’s stand on Tuesday.
Inspired to shop? So are the Americans.
Both national and international interest in traditional country style is at a high. In 2022, Fairfax & Favor made its debut at the Kentucky Horse Trials, after noticing a surge in demand from the US.
“British country heritage style is so popular worldwide,” says Parker.
“When we set up shops in locations like Stow-in-the-Wold and Helmsley, we thought we would reach a new local audience. And we did. But we underestimated how popular quintessentially British villages and heritage buildings are as hotspots for international tourists.”
For anyone who wants to look the part, native or tourist, Fairfax & Favor, Hicks & Brown et al are ready to offer the clothes to match the event.
So could they successfully kit me out to blend in? I realised, too late, that I should have borrowed this coat in brown. But apparently it was my polished, pointed black boots that really gave me away.
“Tan suede with round-toes and a block heel would be more Cheltenham,” one regular advised me. Better luck next year, then.