A Royal Ascot Without the Crowds, but Hats and Frocks on Full Display

A Royal Ascot Without the Crowds, but Hats and Frocks on Full Display

A Royal Ascot Without the Crowds, but Hats and Frocks on Full Display

A Royal Ascot Without the Crowds, but Hats and Frocks on Full Display

LONDON — For years, the Royal Ascot horse races have marked a high point on Maria Zherebtsova’s calendar, not just as a socialite but as a much-sought-after milliner whose creations have bedecked many a high-class cranium.

But this year the races were closed to spectators, sending certain rarefied circles of society into a tizzy and upending Ms. Zherebtsova’s plans for this year’s design.

Working on behalf of Royal Ascot’s #Styledwiththanks campaign in support of charities for people affected by the coronavirus, she added handmade resin crystals to act as prisms, creating a rainbow that was intended not just as an symbol of hope but a reminder to maintain social distancing.

She wasn’t the only one adapting to the new circumstances. When its five-day showpiece event opened this week, the sweeping, manicured grounds of the Ascot racecourse were eerily empty, deprived of the usual crowd of 300,000. But a dedicated audience showed up remotely, putting their most extravagant frocks (and hats) on display online.

Thousands of people dressed up in their finery and took to their back yards and local parks to participate in a virtual showcase of British fashion and culture, gathering under the #Styledwiththanks hashtag.

In keeping with Royal Ascot’s 300-year tradition of mandatory millinery, women from across the world exhibited a wide array of high fashion hats, with styles ranging from extravagant and refined to outlandish and extraordinary. On display were hats that looked like caramel swirls and fondue fountains, fruit salads and U.F.O.s.

“This is one of the biggest social events in the English calendar that people pick outfits for a long time in advance,” Ms. Zherebtsova said in a nod to all the plans that were disrupted.

“Everyone is still making a huge effort to be unique,” she added. “Royal Ascot is all about being fabulous and having a wonderful day, and I think that’s something that we can see today, even in these dark times.”

Even those who have had to work from home this week participated in the event. Belinda Braddy, a customer care adviser who has been attending Ascot for the last 14 years, wore a dress and hat for all her video conferences on Tuesday.

“There’s nothing quite like Ascot,” she said. “Over the years I’ve met the most lovely, interesting people from all difference ages and races, and everyone makes such an effort to look amazing. I had to do something this year. ”

The virtual Ascot-goers not only dressed for the non-occasion, but often laid on all the trappings. Luxury picnic hampers were set out; fine china tea stands were set up; canapés were handed out and bottles of Champagne flowed through the afternoon as people watched the races on television and posed for pictures that they would post online.

Geoff Derham and his family, who are all involved in the horse racing industry and attend Ascot every year, constructed a makeshift Royal Enclosure. That is the most exclusive hospitality section of the event, where women are required to wear formal day wear — including a hat with a solid base of 4 inches or more — and men must wear top hat and tails.

“We have a sizable garden and wanted to recreate the social occasion, where you get dressed up like you never normally dress up, meet friends, have a drink, have some great food and have a great day,” Mr. Derham said, adding that his family followed all the coronavirus measures.

“It’s not easy with all the social distancing and hand-washing and wet wipes and sanitizing this and that, but we managed.”

Some women participating in the virtual Ascot campaign took inspiration from the coronavirus theme and made hats out of empty cleaning products and rubber gloves.

“People have been locked up for months and have been wearing nothing but lounge wear and leggings,” said Rosy Ann Taylor, a florist and horse enthusiast who usually picks her Ascot outfit months in advance.

“Ascot couldn’t have come at a better time,” she said. “We needed an excuse to get glammed up and let loose and it’s fun to flaunt your look on Instagram where everyone is following the hashtag and commenting. It’s not the same, but it’s better than just skipping the event altogether.”

One of the biggest disappointments for both the spectators at home and the jockeys on the racecourse this year, was the absence of one of the biggest racing enthusiasts, Queen Elizabeth II, who had attended every Ascot royal meeting during her 68-year reign.

“I am sure it will remain one of Britain’s finest sporting occasions,” she said in a written statement.

Usually, before the races begin, the queen and members of the British royal family arrive by horse-drawn carriages in a procession down the racecourse, kicking off the first bet of the day — on the color of the queen’s hat.

Equestrian enthusiasts say the absence of the usual pomp and spectacle has placed a greater focus on the sport itself and for the queen there was much to celebrate this year after her horse Tactical won first place in the Windsor Castle Stakes race on Wednesday, her first win in four years.

“Ascot generally tends to attract a crowd who go maybe once a year and it’s largely for lunch and dressing up. And then the horse racing is sort of side view to that,” said Edward Whitaker, the chief photographer for The Racing Post, who has been covering the races this week.

  • Updated June 16, 2020

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Mr. Whitaker dismissed the suggestion that the atmosphere around the races this year was bleak. “It’s totally unique and it’s never going to happen like this again so it’s important to capture it,” he said. “There’s this beautiful expanse of nothingness behind the animals and the jockeys and the empty stands and when the horse is coming toward the finish line there’s a real echo, of the horse’s hooves clattering on the grounds.”

Back at virtual Ascot, it’s time for the traditional afternoon tea. Maria Prikhodko, a 31-year-old fashion blogger who attends the races every year with her mother, ordered a tea hamper to her back garden, which arrived complete with china saucers and cups.

“Please don’t do any washing up, just relax and enjoy,” she was told upon delivery. “That’s exactly what we did,” Ms. Prikhodko recalled. “We dressed up, had tea, put down our bets and had a good time.”

The mother and daughter even recreated a singalong to the British patriotic anthem “Rule Britannia!” which is played by a live band at the end of the races each year.

“I had two English flags from the singalong last year, so I gave one to my mom and put the song on my phone and we sang ‘Rule Britannia,’ waving our flags in the kitchen.”


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