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Hats, Horses and Henley

Posted by Ginny Sweeney on

Summer is upon us and I have a myriad of hats in the closet calling for my attention, but most events in California wine country are a much more casual affair than those in my native England with all their traditions and dress codes! I do miss my millinery-mad countrywomen and the much-anticipated occasions on which we adorned our heads. You can take the girl out of Britain, but you can’t take the Brit out of the girl! The headline photo is that of my mum at our wedding back in the 90s.

But what is it with us Brits and hats? And for that matter, what is it with us Brits and gin? After pondering this for a bit, I realized that, besides us Brits, what hats and gin have in common is that both are de rigueur at the most well-heeled and well-attended events in England. One simply cannot arrive without wearing a hat to the Royal Ascot Races, Henley Royal Regatta, or a wedding of any kind, and quite frankly cannot depart without consuming gin. You may attempt both, but if the former, you may be turned away at the door and if the latter... I honestly don’t know what the consequences would be because I’ve never heard of it happening!

Hats & Horses

Founded in 1711 and HRH the Queen’s favorite horse race, Royal Ascot takes place in June and is the highlight of the British Racing calendar, crawling with celebrities, royals and celebrity royals (Megan Markle made her debut as the Duchess of Cornwall at this year’s races). Attending is as much about making an eye-catching fashion statement at the rail as making an eye-popping fortune at the betting window. But only if your ensemble gets you past the gates, as the dress code is rather Draconian. The rules state that women’s skirts must fall below the knee, strapless, halter or spaghetti strap necklines are prohibited, and your midriff must be covered.

But the hats!!! While anything goes style-wise - giant flowers, feathers, pinwheels, fish, flags, tulle, dioramas - whatever is on your head must be worn at all times! And while all the rage in Britain, Fascinators are not allowed in the Royal Enclosure which requires that attendees wear a headpiece which has a “solid base of 4 inches or more”. But since the rules say nothing about the height, I’d put any self-respecting British fashionista up against Vegas showgirls any day.

Queen at Royal Ascot for FIFTH Day on the Trot
as Boozy Punters Drink Racecourse Dry of Pimm’s

This was an actual headline in Britain’s The Sun news rag on the final day of this year’s races. With a highly-guarded secret recipe concocted in the 1840s, Pimm’s #1 is one of England’s most popular summer beverages and is a gin-based liqueur flavored with fruit and spices. Try my homemade version which adds Ginny’s Gin, Martini-Rosso, lemonade, cucumbers, mint, strawberries and an orange slice!

Growing up in the Cotswold’s, we were all pony-mad and I kept mine at my friend’s grandfather’s farm next door, where she kept hers. Her grandfather was into the racing scene and was bringing on a racehorse named “Fighting Kate” after his daughter Katherine. Our closest track is Cheltenham Race Course and its most famed race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the highlight of the Jump season. Turns out the filly had great potential and, as an outsider, great odds on race day. I had been saving my pennies for months and laid every one of them on Fighting Kate to win (well, my mum did it for me). And win she did! Imagine a 10-year-old in 1975 with £100 pounds. I think that’s the one and only time I’ve bet on a horse, but I have continued attending races around the world and each time I don a hat and sip a gin cocktail (except for that Mint Julep on Derby Day - and of course you can substitute Bourbon for Gin for an equally fabulous cocktail).

Hats & Henley

Following close on Ascot’s heels is Henley Royal Regatta, held since 1851 on the River Thames. Spectators flock to its shores to watch hundreds of crews compete from around the world. The course is over two thousand meters long, providing loads of riverbank on both sides for laying out a rug, a picnic lunch and a traditional Henley libation - either Gin and Tonic or Pimm’s - to watch the crews. Between races and refills, many spectators play lawn games, nap or take river cruises.

As some have discovered in years past, wearing an ensemble that worked at Royal Ascot doesn't necessarily translate to regatta success. High hemlines, trousers, culottes and shorts for women and jeans on everyone are out of the question, and anyone who has other ideas and arrives with a thigh-high split in their skirt will be handed safety pins by stewards. Most ladies choose classic formal dress, topped with a cocktail or picture hat. Men, meanwhile, are required to wear lounge suits or traditional striped blazers which represent various rowing clubs, along with a tie or cravat. 

Last month, a lovely invitation arrived from my boarding school alma mater, inviting me to join the Wycliffe College Boat Club at Henley. And while I couldn’t attend, the missive transported me back to my competitive rowing days at Wycliffe. The summer after I turned 15 I had surgery on both feet and spent months in plaster up to my knees. Even though I returned to school in the fall cast-free I was restricted to non-weight-bearing sports, so instead of suiting up in my customary field hockey cleats, I plopped my bum onto the seat of a scull, grabbed the oars and took to the water. I raced as a single sculler (perhaps assigned thus to keep me from socializing on race day) and finished the season with a brave completion of the River Thames Championship Course at the annual Scullers Head of the River Race.

That season with the Boat Club wasn’t all work and no play (have you met me?!) During practice sessions on the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal, we would row past the chocolate factory sitting right on the bank. With its huge back doors open, and the aroma of cocoa beans wafting across the water, we would call to the employees and beg fetchingly for a sample. Often we were rewarded with grand unfinished blocks of chocolate for the trip back to school. And on occasion my female teammates and I would leisurely row well past the factory (and thus out of view) to sunbathe topless. But I do remember being dragged into our Housemistress’s office and reprimanded for rowing braless because it was “putting the boys off their stroke”!

Hats & To Have and To Hold

So there is this Graham-Smith family thing from my sister Sandra, that if someone in our family or a friend has been dating someone steadily for a while, the question will arise: “Is it time to buy a hat?” The implication being of course that we suspect we may be about to receive news of a wedding, to which you're always expected to wear a fashionable, show-stopping hat.

Unlike here in the U.S., it is not taboo for wedding guests to wear white to a British wedding and bridesmaids often dress in white like the bride—who, BTW, pays for their gowns. (If you’re being asked to look like a meringue, you shouldn’t have to pay for the indignity as well.) And as for the men? Morning dress—tails with gray trousers - is very traditional in England for weddings. I suppose it helps them get away with the deliciously rude and mortifying speeches about the groom that are highly anticipated at all English weddings, rather than the arse-kissing that passes for toasts in America.

Champagne may be the quintessential celebratory drink at a wedding reception on both sides of the pond, but we at Ginny’s Gin prefer to kick it up a notch with a French 75 or a Pimm’s Royale, both of which feature gin but make room for sparkling wine. Be sure to check the recipes in our cocktail section - cheers and happy summer!

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