By Courtney Suciu
The Melbourne Cup isn’t just a thoroughbred horserace. It’s a huge public holiday in Australia, and like any holiday celebration, it’s a chance to don your finest attire. And, like any holiday celebration, there are certain customs and traditions that must be honored.
In 1965, anyway, this was certainly the case. A lady attending Melbourne’s greatest social event was expected to wear a proper hat, white gloves and stockings to Flemington Racecourse. So expected that when English supermodel Jean Shrimpton showed up not only in a dress that fell above the knee but also with a bare head, hands and legs, it made international headlines.
It was arguably one of the most divisive moments in modern fashion history.
What was the big deal? We investigate Jean Shrimpton’s role in the fashion revolution of the ‘60s, plus find out how the Melbourne Cup dress code has changed over the years. (Spoiler alert: big hats are very much in!)
In a fascinating critical analysis of hats as “signal of compliance with custom and fashion,” scholar Claire Hughes1 wrote, “Jean Shrimpton’s appearance in 1965 at the Melbourne Cup carnival marked a crisis for fashion hats and the passing of a generation.”
Often considered the world’s first supermodel, Shrimpton embodied London’s emerging minimalist “youthquake” fashion movement – a stark departure from the formality and frills of previous generations.
“When she appeared at Flemington, hair blowing in the wind, hatless, gloveless, sleeveless, stockingless (it was hot) in a minidress against a sea of hats at Melbourne's biggest social event,” Hughes explained, “she made everyone else, as dress historian Prudence Black says, look 'old and dowdy,'” and caused the “Lady Mayoress” to fume: “'not wearing a hat or gloves on Saturday ... [was] very bad manners.’”
In the wake of Shrimpton’s faux pas, the controversy elicited impassioned commentary around the world, as noted by Australian-born journalist Judy Fallon, reporting from London for The Irish Times2:
For the tides of fury that were aroused by the appearance of top model Jean Shrimpton when she attended the races in Melbourne, Australia, meant that those with divided loyalties, such as myself, were continually being drawn into arguments in which either side was defending the indefensible…that is to say, one either had to side with the Ill-mannered Guest, or the equally Ill-mannered Hostess.
Fallon explained that when she was a growing up, “one was taught (more often than not with the back of a hairbrush) that the first lesson in good manners was ‘When in Rome, etc.’” – meaning that, according to critics of the model, it was Shrimpton’s obligation to find out what attire would be appropriate for the event, and then dress in the customary fashion.
On the other hand, Fallon continued, the fault couldn’t be entirely placed on Shrimpton, as her defenders were quick to point out the failure of her host (the Dupont Company) to adequately inform their guest of what was expected of her at the event, and “protect her from the derisory comment of other more conventionally clad guests.”
Either way, Fallon concluded it did “not mean that the tut-tutting Melbourne matrons had any right to criticize with such humorless vehemence an invited guest at their annual Flemington corroboree.”
How did Shrimpton respond to all of this hoopla? Basically, with a shrug.
A couple of days after the incident (and still in the midst of its “sartorial storm”), she said in an interview with The Observer3 that Melbourne “must be the most conventional place in the world,” and then elaborated on the controversial style she was popularizing.
“I have always worn short skirts,” Shrimpton told the paper, “and while I am young, I’ll go on wearing them.”
The miniskirt became a striking emblem of the rebellious youth culture, and Shrimpton was its “It” girl. In the article, “The Face That Launched the Mini Skirt,” Joanna Hunter4 wrote that the rumpus around the model did not end with the Melbourne Cup, but was firmly attached to her revolutionary fashion sense. “The miniskirt, which was to reach heights of up to 9in above the knee and frequently revealed more than a flash of thigh,” Hunter explained, “inspired a mixture of outrage and delight.”
But it wasn’t just her clothing that made Shrimpton the daring darling of fashion editors. Over the course of four pages, Newsweek5 attempted to dissect “The Shrimp’s” radical mystique:
Socially inclined analysts detect in Jean Shrimpton’s most pervasive expression – her blank, almost vapid insouciance – the analogue to the glazed look on the dance floors of the discotheques. It is the cool look of today’s young, slightly pouting, as uncommunicative as a couple lost in the narcissistic reveries of the Jerk [dance].
In a word, Shrimpton was hip. And an ironic part of that – and the youthquake movement overall – was that this “hipness” encompassed a cynical weariness that seemed contrary to youth.
“I keep claiming I want to live in the country with dogs and horses and have children,” she said in the same Newsweek piece. “But I realize it is an illusion that I could make that my whole life. It is better to be glamorous and have that illusion.”
However, it was eventually glamor that left Shrimpton disillusioned. She retired from modeling by her late 20s, becoming a “virtual recluse,” according to Hunter’s account. "’The trouble is I really hate clothes,’ she told one interviewer. ‘Sometimes you get all dressed up but what for? You wear a big hat and it drives you mad. It keeps hitting your collar or getting in the way and after half an hour I think why did I bother.’”
So, Shrimpton went to get married, have a family and open a hotel in Cornwall – but what became of fashion customs at the Melbourne Cup?
Hughes wrote that “Shrimpton challenged conformism: she now looks rather heroic, like Liberty Leading the People,” and under her influence, hats fell somewhat out of fashion for a while. But today’s young people are “encouraged to see the Melbourne Cup as a festive fashion event that includes hats…not as obligatory but as fun and celebratory.”
In recent years smaller headpieces known as fascinators were the rage among the fashionistas at Flemington, but last year “milliner to the elite” Melissa Jackson (whose hashtag is “brim it”) told Tessa Akerman of The Australian6 that she’s been on a crusade to bring back traditional wider brimmed hats. And it seems her efforts are causing a ripple in women’s racewear – the latest trend is a return to the extravagance of decades past.
Her fellow milliner Marea Bright told the newspaper “I felt like I was in ‘My Fair Lady’” among the spectacularly-dressed attendees at last year’s race. She’d also been pushing for more a vintage ladylike style to make a comeback at the event.
“The message is getting through,” she observed.
As the Glen Innes Examiner put it, when it comes to the Melbourne Cup, “The ritual is always the same - and the ritual is always enjoyable. It's about the horses, of course. And the once-a-year betting. But it's really about the hats.”7
For further research
Catch a glimpse of the 1896 Melbourne Cup race in the video History of Australian Cinema, Part 1, The Pictures That Moved, 1896-1920, available from the Australasian Video Online database. You can also check the race results from that year (and even earlier) in issues of the The Field from British Periodicals.
And learn more about the styles and significance of women’s hats in these titles from Ebook Central:
Amphlett, H. (2003). Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear.
De Courtais, G. (2006). Women's Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles: with 453 Illustrations, Medieval to Modern.
Hughes, C. (2017). Hats.
Wilcox, R. T. (2008). The Mode in Hats and Headdress: A Historical Survey with 198 plates.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu