The finalists in the Viva Prix de Fashion competition at Ellerslie on Derby Day. Julie Barbour, Eleanor Campbell, Charlotte Moor (judged supreme national winner), Emma Stroud and Alisha Maxwell.

The Secret to Race-day Style

In the hot seat as a judge for the Viva Prix de Fashion at Ellerslie

It’s a funny thing being a judge. I detest beauty contests and formulaic approaches to appearance, but on Saturday I found myself once again sizing up race-day fashion, an oddly compelling and arcane world of its own.

The event was the Viva Prix de Fashion, an annual competition which draws the best race-day fashion winners from throughout New Zealand to Ellerslie on Derby Day, where they vie for the national best-dressed title. Before the grand final, a daily winner is also chosen to go through to the national final, which carries a $30,000 prize package and the chance to compete at the Melbourne Cup carnival.

This year New Zealand will be represented by the immaculately styled Charlotte Moor, who along with her sister Olivia is no stranger to successfully competing on big race days. None comes bigger in the Southern Hemisphere than at Flemington, so it was appropriate to have Melbourne milliner Kerrie Stanley on hand as guest judge, sitting alongside me and TV3’s head of styling and makeup Tracey Dalton.

Stanley has crafted the head-wear of a score of Fashions-on-the-Field winners in Australia. She liked what she saw in the final line-up in Auckland, but thought, as did we all, that a little more attention to detail would have helped entrants in the daily heats. Several very good outfits were let down by clompy or too high shoes, poorly pressed or fitted garments, or were under-accessorised or had a head-piece that didn’t make the grade.

That said, it’s not easy nailing the total look, and you wouldn’t catch me up on the runway being brave enough to come under scrutiny, so hats off to everyone who competed. So why then do I have the nerve to judge something I haven’t competed in? Well, I’ve spent years on and off writing about fashion and I love millinery and nowhere else do they come together as strikingly as at the races.

Appreciating the historical references of this spectator sport that has updated itself yet retained a sense of occasion has led to my exception to the rule when it comes to judging. Competitors are picked on over-all presentation and while looking good helps carry an outfit, winning isn’t the preserve of younger models only. Men can scrub up impressively as well and it is nice to see so how confidently many do.

If the lure of being picked a winner is what it takes, so be it, but along the way overall standards of appearance have lifted and with it, I’d venture, the convivial atmosphere at big meetings.

The best race-wear is closely connected to contemporary fashion, so these days we see fewer mother-of-the-bride get-ups than was the case 20-odd years ago. The stipulation of smart daywear can confuse newcomers to the track who are more used to dressing up for evening events, but thankfully among contestants — and sensible racegoers looking to avoid sunburned cleavage — the cocktail-hour confusion of a few seasons back seems to have mostly sorted itself out.
Headpieces are the defining difference between race-wear and other occasions and finding the right one can be a mission. But more than anything they add an air of individuality to a look.

A pretty black picture hat caught the eye of the judges as worn by the Viva Prix de Fashion daily winner Johanna Neuhauser who handily has a mother with excellent millinery skills — as do the Moor sisters. Charlotte Moor’s mother made her black and white headpiece and her top, worn with an Arthur Galan skirt and a Kate Spade fan-shaped clutch.

Millinery doyenne Ailie Miller was watching and said she had been frantic in the lead-up to the races. Over the decades she has done much to keep what was once written off as dying art alive locally. Among her pupils at a workshop was Charlotte Moor’s mother. Prize sponsor Natalie Chan, who has branched out into designing racewear as well as headgear, was also enjoying checking out the competition and deserves credit for getting younger women into headpieces, starting with her simple rosette clips.

That’s the secret of successful race-day dressing, start simple, gain confidence, then add a flourish and have fun. I’ll be back at the races for Auckland Cup Day, but I admit to still faffing about my outfit. Best I pull it together because the Viva team will be judging again.

On Cup Day (Wednesday, March 4) there’s a non-scary fashion competition going on called Cup Couture where well-dressed men and women will be spotted on course and invited to compete. For Diamond Day (Saturday, March 7), it’s the same drill but for women only. Go along looking great and you could be a winner. For more on race-day fashion check-out ellerslie.co.nz.

• For the record on Derby Day I wore my own Kate Sylvester black lace dress from last season, a borrowed Natalie Chan headpiece that picked up on the traditional black and white combination of Derby Day dressing, my own black and white spotted shoes and a mate’s clutch bag into which I’d stashed some long-wear lipstick, but thanks to being M.A.C.-ed up in store I barely needed a touch-up all day.

Find out more on the Ellerslie Racedays and become a member of the Auckland Racing Club

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