What to Wear to a Horse Race

In the past, fashion at a horse race required a specific dress code be followed. Think of it as dressing in your “Sunday Best,” but only better. Top of your best outfit with a beautiful hat, or perhaps a bowler for the gentlemen, and you were ready to have a fun day at the races.

It didn’t matter what season the race happened to be. You still “dressed to the nines” whenever you went to a racing event.

Over the past few years, however, choosing what to wear to a horse race has become a less formal experience. The rules of fashion are no longer as important as they used to be. Instead of wearing black slacks, for example, gentlemen can get away with wearing black denim jeans. For the ladies, a knee-length sundress works just as well as the classic little black dress – and shorter skirts are often looked at as inviting fashion at a modern race as well.

There are still some general rules that you’ll want to follow if you’re debating what should be worn to the next horse race you intend to attend.

Rule #1: Decorum

There is still an attitude of modesty that is expected when attending a horse race. For women, that means avoiding clothing options that are strapless or would leave little to the imagination of others. It is recommended to avoid tight clothing because of the need to move about while at the race, but to avoid clothing items that are too loose as well to avoid getting caught on something.

For gentleman, think business formal, but with a casual twist. Coat and tie are acceptable. Some blazers can pass muster if paired with a colorful dress shirt that is top-buttoned. Some events may overlook casual pants or khakis, but a good rule of thumb is to look for a comfortable pair of slacks that come to the top of the shoe.

Rule #2: Headpieces

The rules for what headpieces to wear depend on the actual venue where the race is being held. If you were to attend the Royal Ascot in Australia, for example, you would be required to wear a headpiece that was a minimum of 10 centimeters in width. At the Kentucky Derby, there are few hat requirements and they can be decorated with a number of different items to express personal creativity.

For the guys, a fedora is an alternative option if a top hat or bowler is not preferred. Most hats for gentlemen are solid in color, though some ribbon, striping, and other minor decorative items can sometimes be found. 

Rule #3: Shoes

Dressing rules for shoes are dependent on the location of the horse race as well. Spring heels or sandals are often recommended for women, while the standard polished dress shoe is often recommended for men. Many venues invite patrons to wander the grounds, so a comfortable pair of flats for the ladies is something worth bringing along if the venue would allow it.

Rule #4: Clothing Patterns

There are no set standards for what your clothing actually looks like, but there are some traditional choices that are worth reviewing. For a horse race in the spring, think about options that include pastel colors, florals, and even lace. The weather can be unpredictable in the early months of the year, so consider dressing in layers or bringing an alternative outfit so you can be comfortable during the day.

If you are attending an autumn horse race, then earth tones tend to be the better option. Look for wool options to provide warmth. Sleek dresses with navy blue or black are often popular. Paisley and argyle are potential options to think about incorporating into your race-day fashion as well. 

Outfits that feature mostly white or mostly dark colors are always a good option to consider when attending a horse race.

Rule #5: Jewelry

“Since the hat is the focus of… fashion, there’s not much need for large, statement jewelry. Let your hat be the attention grabber as your primary accessory and keep the jewelry simple.” That is the advice from the Kentucky Derby.

One aspect to your jewelry on race day is to consider options that highlight the venue, the equestrian world, or a specific horse or jockey that you are there to support. If you want the focus to be on your headpiece, then keep simple bracelets and necklaces as your primary jewelry considerations.

Remember that this is an all-day event. Wearing something that feels bulky or heavy may become uncomfortable over time.

Rule #6: Handbags

Many racing events involve a lot of walking. If you visit the stables to see the horses, there may be some challenging environments to navigate. For that reason, it is advisable to pack any needed accessories based on the anticipated conditions that will be at the venue. Large bags are often recommended, but may be restricted for security reasons at certain venues. Choose the largest bag that you are comfortable with carrying.

Having a large bag with you is a great way to bring along a spare pair of shoes. You might want some sunscreen and a bottle of water (or your preferred allowed beverage) and other items that may be useful should the weather change.

Then bring a handbag or a clutch along so you aren’t taking pictures with that large bag or forced to drag that bag along should you wish to make a wager or purchase something on the grounds.

Rule #7: Socks

One of the more unusual fashion rules that you’ll find at various horse racing venues, especially for men, involves socks. If you are wearing horse bit loafers to the event fellows, then it is important to know whether or not you’re supposed to wear them without socks. Even though the shoe is technically a loafer, the structure of the shoe itself is more similar to that of a boat shoe.

For women, most shoes are difficult to wear with socks anyway. Certain flats may be more comfortable with socks and that is usually left to personal discretion.

Sneakers and tennis shoes are usually prohibited at any formal venue. 

Rule #8: Sunglasses

Always bring along your favorite set of sunglasses when attending a horse race. You may find yourself squinting into the sun to track a race otherwise. Remember to apply some sunscreen to your face if you’ll be outdoors for most of the day to avoid coming home with a raccoon-style suntan on your face from the glasses. 

Once you have all the fashion rules or expectations straightened out, you’ll be ready to enjoy a favorite cocktail or two and relax with your favorite people. Why? Because there’s one rule of what to wear to a horse race that comes above any other. It’s not really what you decide to wear, but how you wear it, that matters the most.