The British social season hits a posh pinnacle this week with Royal Ascot, the annual series of exclusive horse races in Berkshire, England. There will be blue-blooded guests: last year Meghan Markle made her debut, and in 2017, Kate Middleton made headlines for catching a falling Countess. The Queen has attended every year since 1945, and it's said that Ascot is her her favorite week of the year. There will be million-dollar purses. And there will be plenty of Pimm’s.
As anyone who’s seen My Fair Lady knows, Ascot operates by a serious politeness playbook, from the spelled-out (dress code policies) to the unsaid (not so many selfies, dear). So Vogue asked Debrett’s, the ultimate authority on British etiquette, to share the most and important Ascot’s dos and don’ts.
Do: Brush up on the Dress Code—Even If You’ve Attended Before
The Royal Ascot dress code is so notoriously complicated that they actually publish a guide, complete with picture suggestions, on the website. “You should see it as an occasion to dress up in your finest,” says Renée Kuo, managing editor of Debrett’s. “This is not the time to be tacky or show off your best lingerie.” The level of formality depends on the enclosure you’re in. For example, the Windsor Enclosure is the most casual, with guests “encouraged to dress in smart daywear.”
The most prestigious enclosure is the Royal Enclosure, which is invite only—and the invitation comes from the Queen herself. It has the strictest and most traditional dress code, and guests are turned away if they do not abide.
For men, this means black or gray morning dress, which must include a waistcoat, a top hat, and black shoes with socks, the guide says. For women, “dresses and skirts should be of modest length defined as falling just above the knee or longer.” Straps for dresses and tops must have a width of one inch or greater. Hats are a must and fascinators are not allowed.
Even Royal Ascot regulars should check the dress code frequently, as there are often changes from year to year. For example, there was a new rule in 2018 that men must wear socks in the Royal Enclosure. In 2017, jumpsuits were allowed for the first time.
Don’t: Go Selfie-Crazy
Yes, it’s tempting to stream and share the entire Ascot experience. And with no mobile phone restrictions at the event, there’s no one stopping you. But that doesn’t mean you should—especially if you’re rubbing elbows with the rich and famous in exclusive enclosures. “We would recommend that guests be respectful of each other’s privacy. The best guidance is to enjoy the day, the moment and the people you are with rather than trying to get the best selfie to post on social media,” says Kuo. “Ensure that your conversation, if in a public place, is not disturbing other people and remember that people in the flesh deserve more attention than the phone in your hand.”
Don’t: Pull a My Fair Lady
There’s a memorable scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle shocks the well-to-do crowd at Ascot with her, erm, boisterous cheering. While there’s nothing wrong with a little celebration—even the Queen gets into it!—dial it down from Super Bowl or World Cup-level sounds. “Enjoy the day, cheer on your horse, and celebrate your wins (or losses) graciously,” Kuo advises.
Do: Take Dining Cues from Those Around You
There are a variety of dining options at Ascot, from Fortnum & Mason picnic baskets to sit-down meals. Yet, especially for international diners, these lunch breaks can be fraught with etiquette questions. For example, unlike Americans, “British diners don’t typically swap the fork from left to right hand after cutting their food; the fork remains in the left hand, with tines pointed down.”
The simplest way not to stress about it all? “If in doubt about table manners, you can always eye the people around you. Most importantly, relax and enjoy your lunch.”
Do: Cheers (in Moderation)
At Ascot, the celebratory champagne (and Pimm’s) are flowing. That, of course, can lead to a good time—too good of a time. As Kuo puts it, “Faux pas may be best avoided by staying on just the right side of tipsy.”
Now, may the best horse win!
Originally Appeared on Vogue