Bold and beautiful

Bold and beautiful

For one stunning week a year, fashion bursts to life during the Melbourne Cup Carnival. In its 61st year, the iconic Fashions on the Field competition, has been a major force in driving this.

Anna Byrne 21 September 2023

Described by renowned milliner and Royal Family hat-maker Phillip Treacy as, “The Oscars of racing,” the carnival is acknowledged around the world as a cavalcade of creativity and an unrivalled sartorial showcase.

This year marks 61 years since the inaugural Fashions on the Field (FOTF) – formalising the competition and cementing fashion’s status as an equal part in the week’s proceedings alongside horseracing.

Since being initiated by a Victoria Racing Club sub-committee in 1962, the competition has changed as much as the fashions being worn by the fierce competitors.

Since 1962, the Fashions on the Field competition has been an iconic part of Australian cultural history. (Fairfax Images)

From the early days of scouts combing the crowds for flair and fine design to creative new categories, an innovative fashion competition in Shanghai and even Fashions on the Front Lawn during the global pandemic, the past 60 years has seen the distinction of Australia’s grandest fashion prize, which includes a Lexus car, continue to grow and unequivocally prove that the delight in dressing up, is never as tempting as it is trackside.

On Derby Day in 1984, Karin Upton Baker was among the women who caught the eye of the Fashions on the Field scouts. Dressed in a black and white Yves Saint Laurent coat dress, the junior staffer at Vogue magazine didn’t even realise the competition existed.

“I was kind of a bit embarrassed when I realised that I had to walk up on a podium,” says the now managing director of Hermes in Australia.

“I had to organise extra time off work to return for the final day of judging and was a bit sheepish when calling my editor,” she says.

Crowned the overall winner by the judging panel – which included then-couturier to The Queen, Hardy Amies – Upton won a trip for two to the US with $3500 spending money.

From floral to feathered, lacy to racy, competitors have since travelled from as far as Perth, Far North Queensland, New Zealand, London and China, translating runway trends into trackside glamour and hoping that the colour of their dress of their dress or tilt of their millinery might enchant a panel of judges enough to win the prize.

In 2016, carefully curated style took to the stage at the largest Fashions on the Field enclosure at Flemington’s new precinct, The Park. Since then, thousands of entrants have competed each year across the carnival’s calendar, embracing the tradition, heritage and personality of each race day – from the classic black and white dress code of Derby Day to the bold flamboyance of Cup Day and ladylike elegance of Oaks Day.

Among them are women for whom the competition has become an annual passion.

Known as FOTF Enthusiasts, these are the women who have claimed the race days as their own. One of the most familiar faces in the last decade is competitor turned VRC racing ambassador Crystal Kimber-Peters.

“I remember watching Fashions on the Field on TV as a teenager,” Kimber-Peters said.

“A girl named Sarah Schofield won, and she was studying fashion at RMIT at the time. I decided right then, I wanted to be her.” The next year, Kimber-Peters entered Stakes Day Fashions on the Field, which celebrates a new generation of fashionistas with children and families taking part.

“I wore an outfit inspired by Paris Hilton,” she laughed. “I remember mum made me wear leggings underneath the skirt.”

The daughter and granddaughter of seamstresses, Kimber-Peters did go on to study fashion design at RMIT, and after dropping out of the course, she credits Fashions on the Field in helping her rediscover her love for fashion. She went on to claim the crown of National Fashions on the Field winner in 2018, wearing a dress made by her mother, using fabric from a skirt that belonged to her grandmother.

“My grandma picked up this raffia detailed skirt in an op shop 30 years earlier and I always loved playing with it as a child,” she said.

“When she passed away, she left me the skirt and mum transformed it into the dress I wore that year.”

In a twist of fate, right before walking on stage, Kimber-Peters bumped into former winner, Schofield, who was now entering the Designer Award category.

“She came up and said, ‘Good luck, I love your outfit’, and I just had this feeling, that maybe today might be the day.”

In the decade since Kimber-Peters first entered, she says the competition has evolved dramatically. While there was once a lean towards designer labels and ready-to-wear design, fashionistas have since embraced their own creativity.

“Having something that is completely unique also gives you an edge in the competition,” said Kimber-Peters who has since sat on the judging panel, joining a roll call of the world’s most stylish tastemakers from the past 60 years including Ita Buttrose, Dita Von Teese, Jerry Hall and Kate Bosworth.

Her other top tips for impressing the panel?

“A high-low mix: invest in some designer pieces, whether it’s a bag or a dress, but be resourceful with your other items.

“I also like to interpret the dress codes of each day my own way. For me, Cup Day is about being bold and standing out, but sometimes the way to do that is in softer, feminine shades that most people reserve for Oaks Day,” she said.

Despite having won the biggest slice in Australia’s richest fashion prize, Kimber-Peters said the most special part has been the bonds formed.

“Fashions on the Field has created such a special bond between mum and I,” she said.

“We have travelled all around Australia together – she’s done my hair in airport food courts and helped me get dressed in public bathrooms. We attended Royal Ascot together, and went to Hong Kong, all thanks to Fashions on the Field. Some of our favourite memories have been because of the competition,” she said.

And while it may be a competition, Kimber Peters is adamant it feels more like comradery backstage.

“I think the most special part of Fashions on the Field is that it brings people together.

Whether you are an engineer, a scientist, a nurse, a fashion student, a lawyer or a mum, it brings people together from all walks of life who have a mutual love and appreciation for fashion. And I think that is pretty amazing,” she said.

If there is one thing the past 60 years has inspired, it’s that no matter what you wear on every other day of your life, Fashions on the Field gives you the opportunity to daydream with your style. You can be whoever you want to be when you are trackside. And in that sense, everyone is a winner.