A tale of hooves and heels – A VAMFF Retrospective

We asked our resident “Bon Viveur”, Partnerships Executive Shiva Singam for his take on the history of Spring Racing Fashion and his favourite moments over the years. From the excess of the 80s, to the modern appetite for A-List celebrities, take a journey with this fascinating retrospective.

So the time had come to at last be plunged headlong into the celebration that is the Spring Racing Carnival 2015. A marvellous string of days of exhilarating racing, fashion frolics, celebrity spotting and a grand round of unabated celebrations.

They come in their throng, all plumed and decorated to Caulfield and Flemington Racecourses, shining beacons of the racing world in Australia; the great and the good, the racing fraternity, celebrities, designers, corporate heavyweights, punters, the beautiful folk and the race-going aficionados to make the Spring Racing Carnival an absolute triumph and an event that has placed Melbourne, in the notice of ‘Le Beau Monde’ internationally.

For months now, women and indeed men have been parlaying through retail stores, pouring over magazines and look books, and perusing thousands of e-commerce sites looking for the perfect outfits and accessories. Stylists have been sought to compile looks and dispense advice, like Gods on High.

Yet the Spring Racing Carnival, especially the quartet of days known as the Melbourne Cup Carnival, has historically been a time when the pounding hoof-action on track is engrossing and highly watched as the heel-action off track. In every decade since the first Carnival in 1870, these four days have seen trends set and in some cases the fashion news splashing headlines worldwide over the winning horse.


Most notoriously, on October 30, 1965, British Model, Jean ‘The Shrimp’ Shrimpton, sent ripples through society and the international newsflashes. There she was, the world’s highest paid fashion model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions of fashionable Flemington with a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves and NO stockings!

“I don’t see what was wrong with the way I looked,” Shrimpton said. “I wouldn’t have dressed differently for a race meeting anywhere in the world.”

Three days later, on Melbourne Cup Day, Tuesday 2 November, all eyes were on Shrimpton, but there was to be no repeat of her Derby Day ‘fashion gaffe’. Under pressure from her sponsors, she wore a far more conservative outfit; a three-piece grey suit with an ice-blue straw Breton hat, beige gloves and stockings. “I feel Melbourne isn’t ready for me yet. It seems years behind London.”

Shrimpton’s fashion legacy however was to be seen the year after in 1966 which witnessed the vast appearance of miniskirts at the races.

Fast forward to the heady 80’s when prosperity returned and anything outlandish, larger-than-life or plainly screamed of excess and money was the height of fashion. An era marked by the supreme reign of the grand socialite, whose sartorial taste was inspired by super-hit TV shows like Dynasty and Dallas.

The fashion of the 80’s was epitomised by women like Lady Susan Renouf (then Mrs Sangster), Lady Sonia McMahon, Rose Hancock and the indomitable philanthropist Lillian Frank. They appeared trackside in suits or peplum dresses in bright hued electric colours, metallics and matched with jewel emblazoned overt jewellery and broad-padded shoulders under oversized brimmed hats. The look was a reinforcement of power and wealth.  With no internet, or the selection of luxe-brand stores available locally as there are now, either couturiers were engaged or trips abroad were planned for the sole reason of procuring racing garments.


1985 saw the culmination of the grandeur of the 80’s with the appearance of Diana, Princess of Wales at the Melbourne Cup. The establishment and press gushed in admiration with accolades for her choice of black and white Bruce Oldfield suit and matching wide brimmed Freddie Fox millinery. Even Diana’s choice of stockings, with visible seam running up the back and tiny bows culminating at the heel, was applauded.

Princess Dian and Prince Charles Attend Melbourne Cup 1985

The millennium was marked by the entry of the influencer and bold individual fashion statements were all the go as epitomised in 2003 by the trackside special guest appearance of the ‘famous for being famous duo’, Hilton Sisters; Paris and Nicky. Many fashion pundits gaped in shock and disapproval at the midriff bearing outfit Paris wore and the negligee-like dress, sister Nicky sported as inappropriate for the mandated racing dress code of formal day wear.

The Hiltons’ visit however sharpened the appetite for celebrities at the cup. And though it may not have been a style high point for the spring carnival, it can’t be denied the sisters left their mark indelibly on what was to come after.

More celebrity fashion moments were to be seen in the year’s following though a return to elegance and time honoured, trusted silhouettes have been favoured by those that have graced ours tracks;

2005: Eva Longoria, then a star on hit TV show, Desperate Housewives, turned heads in a deep coral Alex Perry dress with matching Jane Lambert headpiece.



2006: Kate Bosworth had the fashion set applauding at the Derby when she opted can to wear two dresses including a lacy Collette Dinnigan dress in strict keeping of the traditional black and white dress code. Bosworth’s ‘Indian princess’ jewel headpiece is still a regular and popular headwear option to date.


2010: Mother and daughter duo, Jerry Hall and Georgia May Jagger, judged fashions on the field looking resplendent in Vivienne Westwood and Karen Walker respectively.


2011: Dita Von Teese flaunts the black and white dress code of the Derby, appeared as the special guest of Lavazza, in a ruby red, one-shouldered dress from her eponymous label, Dita Von Teese Muse, with matching hued Philip Treacy hat and Louboutin heels.  Much was expected from the fashion icon of many in the 2010s, Sarah Jessica Parker. Parker had many bemused and the fashion cognoscenti divided when she appeared sans hat, but with a jewelled comb in her dramatic chignon. Her outfit however exuded old-world charm and quintessential elegance in the form of a baby pink Jonathon Saunders dress worn with a silver Antonio Berardi duster and Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Celebrities Attend Victoria Derby Day


2012: Nicole Kidman, in her role as ambassador for health brand, Swisse, conquered the Birdcage, with her ode to master photographer, stage and costume designer and close friend of the Royal Family, Cecil Beaton. Kidman’s look was an homage to Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in her on-screen appearance in the Ascot Scene of the perennially loved musical, My Fair Lady. Kidman’s ‘belle époque’ inspired, fitted, black and white lace dress was designed by the late great, L’Wren Scott whilst her millinery made from recycled plastic was by British milliner, Stephen Jones.


2013: A year to be remembered for the sheer number of supermodels that graced the Spring Racing Carnival including; Naomi Campbell, Coco Rocha, Poppy Delevingne and Chanel Iman. Whilst Lexus’ guest, Naomi Campbell, drew admiration in a strapless hounds tooth Dior dress and black Philip Treacy ‘Saucer Hat’, the Canadian Supermodel, Coco Rocha, won hearts when she personally requested to wear a gold lace peplum jacket by Melbourne designer, Anthony Capon.



2014: Gigi Hadid, is the picture of poise in a flirty, pink lace creation by Alex Perry and a headdress of crystal stars by Sydney milliner, Jonathon Howard of Hatmaker. Australian born, ex-Neighbours and now International star, Margot Robbie, enjoyed her racing appearance on Stakes Day looking chic yet relaxed in an Ellery geo-print two-piece.



So now to ponder…….. Who will make trackside history both in the equine and fashion stakes in 2015?

Images used with thanks from The Age, Herald Sun, The Trend Diaries, and the ABC

Feature image by Crabb Photography