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Black-and-white on Derby Day: A timeless tradition
Fashion News

Black-and-white on Derby Day: A timeless tradition

On the inaugural day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, Penfolds Derby Day, Flemington Racecourse is a sea of black and white. It’s a well-known tradition for attendees to embrace the monochrome palette, each adding their unique touch. The origins of this distinctive fashion tradition blend elements from various sources.

Written by VRC 12 October 2023

Our connection to English racing traditions runs deep, and the 1910 ‘Black Ascot’ event is believed to be the inspiration for the black-and-white tradition. Racegoers paid tribute to the late King Edward VII by dressing in black, with white accents provided by strings of pearls and delicate white flowers. This momentous event left an indelible mark on the world of fashion.

It is thought that ‘Black Ascot’ also served as the muse for Cecil Beaton’s iconic portrayal of Royal Ascot in the timeless classic My Fair Lady (1964), sparking a new interpretation of the tradition.

The association with the Derby as a ‘classic’ race, synonymous with strength, sophistication, and elegance, further reinforces the black-and-white palette’s allure.

Another influence closer to home has to be the Derby Day Black & White Fashion Competition, which made its debut on Oaks Day in 1960, coinciding with the centennial celebration of the Melbourne Cup. The driving force behind this event was James Buchanan & Co, distributors of the renowned Black & White whiskey, who generously sponsored a race at the VRC.

In an era when race branding and marketing opportunities were limited, the creative minds of the VRC’s PR consultants, Tom and Marjorie Colebrook, conceived a brilliant idea: a black-and-white fashion contest. The Australian Women’s Weekly spread the word, promising a £200 wardrobe to the victor. The panel of judges, including Betty Keep, The Weekly’s esteemed fashion editor, and three Melbourne fashion experts, chose the winner.

Details from this historic fashion showdown are somewhat elusive. One Melbourne newspaper reported the presence of Miss Australia finalists adding a splash of colour, while a group of fashion-forward young individuals donned black-and-white ensembles to compete for a special award – a testament to the early origins of Derby Day’s distinctive style.

The VRC has played a pivotal role in nurturing and promoting this cherished tradition and today, Derby Day’s black-and-white attire remains a symbol of timeless elegance, and an ode to racing’s rich heritage.

While black-and-white has become a Derby Day tradition, it’s important to note it is not a not a strict dress code. Rather, it is a celebration of sophistication and style – and unlike most fashion trends, this one is simply too chic to fade away.