It was at York Racecourse’s Ebor Festival last weekend that I realised it shares certain similarities with Flemington Racecourse. Both tracks host major four-day racing carnivals, with York’s Ebor Festival run over consecutive days in August, while Flemington hosts the Melbourne Cup Carnival over eight days in October and November. The courses themselves are similar: both sprawling complexes, with modern members’ or county stands at one end, filtering through to public areas, and a lush sweep of grass trackside providing uninterrupted views of the straight. Then there is the third similarity: the Fashion(s) on the Field competition.

Flemington’s undoubtedly ranks as the original and the best, having been refined over a 50-year period to a four-day celebration of racewear for women, men and children. York’s is a recent addition to its festival line-up, and was introduced by designer Jeff Banks, who has hosted the aforementioned Australian event since 2009. The format of York’s competition is no coincidence, with Banks openly admitting he “borrowed” the Australian concept, which includes heats, a daily final and an overall winner at the end of the festival.

Unfortunately, that’s not all Banks borrowed to launch his Fashion on the Field competition in 2011. In launching their event, the team at Fashion on the Field Ltd. breached copyright by doctoring images taken during Flemington’s Fashions on the Field competition in 2010, removing the logos of the principal sponsor, Myer (who is one of Banks’ stockists), and host, the Melbourne Cup Carnival, and replacing them with the branding of UK retailer Debenhams (also one of Banks’ stockists). Banks was asked to remove the images from his website, and somehow kept his job of hosting Fashions on the Field at Flemington later in the year.

A screen cap of Jeff Banks' website, showing images from Flemington's competitions, retouched to display the Debenhams logo.

A screen cap of Jeff Banks’ website, showing images from Flemington’s competitions, retouched to display the Debenhams logo.

Original photos from Derby Day 2010, showing Martha Lynn and Dame Edna on stage with Melbourne Cup Carnival branding.

Original photos from Derby Day 2010, showing Martha Lynn and Dame Edna on stage with Melbourne Cup Carnival branding.

As with the Flemington-based competition, Fashion on the Field UK courted some controversy over its first winner, Victoria Bailey, who lists herself as a model, singer and actress on her Facebook page. The Flemington competition, which has long had a history of being somewhat unfairly claimed by models-dressed-by-designers, finally introduced new rules and professional design and millinery categories in 2005 to ward off third-party competitors. While Victoria was not dressed by a designer or milliner, one of the prizes she received was a makeover and photoshoot wearing Debenhams clothing – a reward that is no doubt better suited to a young, tall and slender entrant. While she stood out among the finalists for her beauty, her outfit was also deemed by many as not being race-appropriate, and featured a long chiffon dress with shoestring straps paired with a simple crinoline fascinator.

The finalists from Fashion on the Field 2011, with winner Victoria Bailey on the far right. Photo from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

The finalists from Fashion on the Field 2011, with winner Victoria Bailey on the far right. Photo from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

The inaugural staging of the event was reportedly so successful, with 800 racegoers entering the competition and setting a course attendance record, that plans were announced on the website to expand Fashion on the Field to more racecourses the following year. Epsom Downs, Newmarket and Goodwood were rumoured additions, with winners from these courses and York to descend upon Ascot for Champions’ Day in October to decide UK’s best-dressed racegoer. But here’s the really interesting part: the idea was then for the UK winner to fly onto Australia for the Melbourne Cup Carnival to represent the UK in the (inter)national Myer Fashions on the Field final at Flemington. A brilliant idea, non?

But nothing came of the announcement, or the rumours. Speaking to a source early last year, I was told Fashion on the Field Ltd. was struggling to find a suitable sponsor – as Jeff Banks is aligned with Debenhams, it left little choice to again target them for the goods, and I gathered they did not receive enough of a boost from that year’s competition to warrant an increased commitment to the event.

Unluckily for the organisers, Debenhams dropped sponsorship of Fashion on the Field altogether, though the competition still went ahead in York. Sponsors were found in Marriott Hotels and Harlequin Holidays, who both provided luxury trips for the Ladies’ Day and overall winners. The competition again proceeded with Jeff Banks’ and milliner Yvette Jelfs’ (who is also listed as part-owning Fashion on the Field Ltd.) involvement, but it was stressed on the registration form on the York Racecourse site that “the competition is meant to be fun and is open to gentlemen and children, it is about looking your best and enjoying fashion, it is not a search for a supermodel.” In reference to the previous winner, perhaps?

Ironically, it was a model who walked away with the Ladies’ Day major prize of a trip to the Dubai World Cup. Faye Cupitt, a young model who was dressed by milliner Michelle Foley of hairfascinators.net and designer Cathy Thorne of Kelly Thorne, won the major prize of a trip for two to the Dubai World Cup, and barely cracked a smile upon the announcement.

Model Faye Cupitt (right) wins Fashion on the Field at York, 2012.

Model Faye Cupitt (right) wins Fashion on the Field at York, 2012. Photo by fashiononthefield.co.uk.

According to an interview with Thorne in the Gloucestershire Echo, it was Foley who first made contact, suggesting they pair-up to enter the competition at York. “She contacted me through Facebook and asked me if I’d like to collaborate with her as she liked what she saw,” explains Cathy. “She came down from Nottingham with her millinery and we got out some of our autumn/winter outfits and there was one of the designs she took to.”

Again, on the Kelly Thorne blog, Thorne acknowledges the strategic collaboration, saying, “Recently Kelly Thorne collaborated with Award winning Milliner Michelle Foley scooping the first prize for Best Dressed Lady at York Ebor Festival.  Model Faye Cupit wore a stunning orange and black outfit from our Autumn/Winter collection, comprising snakeskin print skirt and faux leather bodice, which caught the eye of the judges… It was a great achievement and we’d like to thank Michelle and Faye for playing their part in our success.

But for Foley and Cupitt, this was not their first succes for the season. The model and milliner collaborated earlier in the year, winning the Best Dressed Lady at Chester Racecourse, Newmarket Racecourse and also Newcastle Racecourse, netting thousands of pounds worth of prizes, including another trip for two to Dubai. However, it appears Cupitt was a minor at the time of her first win at Chester, with Foley posting a link from her blog on Facebook stating she was only 17 years old (the blog post was later edited to remove her age). While most racecourses would require entrants to be over 18, it is unknown whether such rules existed at Chester, and whether Cupitt had turned 18 by the time of her subsequent wins.

Faye Cupitt's wins, clockwise from top: Newcastle, Chester, the Facebook post mentioning her age, and Newmarket. Photos from various sources.

Faye Cupitt’s wins, clockwise from top: Newcastle, Chester, the Facebook post mentioning her age, and Newmarket. Photos from various sources.

Foley attended York’s Ebor Festival with Cupitt and her sister, Alisha Foley, who is also regularly spotted donning the milliner’s creations in best dressed competitions. The trio entered three out of the four days of competition, winning both major prizes of luxury holidays (Alisha was named overall winner on the Saturday). But it was the manner in which they entered which had fellow contestants annoyed, as they swapped outfits and re-wore hats with different dresses, with the judges completely failing to notice and rewarding them for their minimal efforts.

Alisha Foley's similar outfits, from left: Thursday's look, Friday's look, and the winning Saturday ensemble. Photos from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

Alisha Foley’s similar outfits, from left: Thursday’s look, Friday’s look, and the winning Saturday ensemble. Photos from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

While Michelle Foley wore two different outfits for the first two days, she rewore her sister's Thursday outfit on Saturday - the same ensemble Faye Cupitt wore to victory at Newmarket and Newcastle. Photos from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

While Michelle Foley wore two different outfits for the first two days, she rewore her sister’s Thursday outfit on Saturday – the same ensemble Faye Cupitt wore to victory at Newmarket and Newcastle. Photos from fashiononthefield.co.uk.

It must be said that while I do not find any fault with Alisha wearing Michelle’s creations and entering the competition – provided she has chosen the outfit herself – we here at OTOT draw the line on models being hired by designers and milliners to compete in best dressed competitions on their behalf. Unfortunately, the Foley sisters were at it again at Southwell Racecourse Ladies’ Day, combining this time with Blessed Boutique in Newark to clothe themselves. Michelle makes mention of the collaboration on her website, providing links to the boutique’s page, detailing the outfits and doing her best to promote the boutique.

According to sources, it’s for reasons such as this York Racecourse went to extreme lengths to discourage “professional” entrants from competing in, and winning this year’s Fashion at the Ebor event. Yes, you’ll note there’s yet again a name-change, as Jeff Banks opted out of this one and left Yvette Jelfs to run it on her own. In the racecourse’s description of the event, it reiterated that “(the competition) is about looking your best and enjoying fashion, it is not a search for a supermodel… Though the prizes are excellent and the competition likely to be fierce, those entering are expected to meet that sense of fun- it is not a search for a supermodel, nor a passport to a career on the catwalk. The judges may chose a regular racegoer at such events or someone visiting for the first time. Being a certain age, height or dress  size are not the vital ingredients, it is about simply about being “best dressed” as the judges consider it.” This instantly set alarm bells ringing – by going out of their way to prove “normal” entrants would not be discriminated against, would they actually discriminate against and unfairly judge anyone who dressed super well and/or looked like a model?

The answer, in my opinion, and those of other entrants and onlookers I encountered during the competition, was a resounding “yes”. There is no other way to explain why so many beautifully dressed contestants in well put-together outfits missed out on not only winning, but, in some cases, just making the final. Here are the 11 finalists in the Best Dressed Lady category (click on the image to view in more detail), can you choose the winner?

finalists_thurs

 

Let’s remove some of the possibilities: firstly, the lovely Annemarie Leake on the far right, who I spent time chatting to during the day. Annemarie only entered the competition to prepare for another event she is a finalist in – the Glamorous Gran UK competition – which requires her to compete in a “Day at the Races or Eveningwear” category. Annemarie stood out immediately in her classic black-and-white 50s-style dress and wide-brimmed hat, channelling her idol Audrey Hepburn with grace and elegance. The former beauty queen was awarded the prize of Best Dressed Mature Lady – a category which was not mentioned on York’s site, but of which she is a worthy winner. It’s just a pity that, in winning it, it ruled her out of taking the Best Dressed Lady title.

Runner-up was Liz Ackroyd, fourth from the right in a long, bold orange dress and sinamay and burnt feather headpiece. Liz is no stranger to these competitions, having won the daily Best Dressed Lady prize in both 2011 and 2012 Fashion on the Field events. However, the big prize at York has always eluded her.

Not surprisingly, the best hat winner came from these finalists (there was a separate final parade, but many of the contestants made the final in both categories). Before you look to the contestants on the left for the winner, the best hat as awarded by the judges is actually standing next to Annemarie (and unfortunately I don’t have her name – apologies). However, I can describe the award-winning millinery as a crinoline confection on a headband with stripped coque feathers. A nice piece but hardly one to call “best hat”.

Which leaves the Best Dressed Lady. If you’re anything like me, or my absent friends who I later quizzed for their opinion, you’ll be looking at Maria Cheslin – second from the left in the soft florals and stand-out hat. And you’d be wrong. The judges decided the entrant next to her, Vicky Jenkinson, in the ill-fitting beige-pink dress and explosive feather-and-pearl headpiece was indeed the “best dressed” contestant. Vicky, you may have won, but I have two words of advice for you: suitable underwear. That will certainly help your cause when you represent York in the final of the Yorkshire Best Dressed Racegoer for 2013 competition.

If you’re wondering by now if I entered, and what I wore, then the answer is “yes”, and this:

Comparing vintage-styled outfits with Annemarie Leake, winner of the Best Dressed Mature Lady award.

Comparing vintage-styled outfits with Annemarie Leake, winner of the Best Dressed Mature Lady award.

I have a few theories on why I didn’t make the final, despite being scouted to enter the competition by racecourse staff and told by various attendees that “you’re in my top two!”. I am not angry or bitter about missing out – I came to terms with the nature of these competitions many, many years ago – but I would like to say this: I am not a model, and have not modelled since the age of 14. I put together and buy my own outfits – this one was sourced from all different places including Harrods and boohoo.com. Yes, I am a professional milliner, but I’m wearing the outfit myself – I did not and would not ever hire a model to do my bidding for me. It was an unexpectedly hot day and absolutely, that could have gone against me, but, for the judges’ and organisers’ sakes, I sincerely hope it was not because they made incorrect assumptions about me based on my looks.

I attended the final day of the Ebor Festival with a big group of friends, many of whom had travelled up from London to help celebrate my best friend’s big 3-0. It was always intended to be a fun day, with a few bets placed, a few more bottles of champagne consumed, and a bit of fashion frivolity on the side. It must be noted that some of my friends take dressing for the races as seriously as I do – well, one in particular, Kate, who also happens to be Boyfriend Drew’s sister and our flatmate. Kate had such a great time at Royal Ascot this year she wanted to attend the races again, and in serious style, so she earmarked York’s Ebor Festival as her preference.

Our group at York, with Kate in the centre. Kate, Fiona (second from left) and I entered the competition.

Our group at York, with Kate in the centre. Kate, Fiona (second from left) and I entered the competition.

Donning the outfit she wore to Royal Ascot’s Saturday meeting, Kate registered for the Fashion at the Ebor competition. I can’t stress enough that I did not dress Kate – she put the outfit together herself and chose to enter the event to boost her confidence. The dress she bought on our trip to Las Vegas for her brother’s birthday, with the intention of wearing it to Royal Ascot. The shoes and clutch purse she already had, and while she borrowed the sash and necklace from my wardrobe, it was her idea to wear them. The hat I made for the Millinery Award at last year’s Melbourne Cup Carnival. Kate had always wanted to wear this hat because she loves massive, all-encompassing designs, and I make so few of them. She actually decided at the time of buying the dress that she would wear this hat with it, even though she had yet to try it on.

We really thought Kate would have a great chance in the competition, given she looked fantastic, was clearly not a model (if you see her walk on the runway, you’ll know what I mean!), and certainly enjoys fashion. And we thought she’d have an equally good chance in the Best Hat category, given she wears large millinery with such confidence. Unfortunately, and for some unknown reason, they removed the Best Hat category from Saturday’s competition, despite stating on the website “Daily prizes provided by our partners are for: Best hat, Best dressed lady, gentleman and child.

The heats went well and while Fiona and I didn’t progress through to the final (I had zero expectations of making it, given Thursday’s proceedings), Kate was announced as one of the top four contestants. She was nervous, but excited about once again walking the runway, which is not a natural action for her and one that takes her well out of her comfort zone.

The Best Dressed Lady finalists at Fashion at the Ebor on Saturday.

The Best Dressed Lady finalists at Fashion at the Ebor on Saturday.

There were no surprises amongst the Best Dressed Child, Gentleman and Mature Lady finalists, which were announced with a minor hiccup or two (somehow the organisers called out one wrong number for the men’s finalists, of which there were only two – out of three contestants. The number they called out as a finalist belonged to a female entrant.) While the Best Dressed Gentleman and Mature Lady winners were obvious picks, it was a little unnerving to see the Best Dressed Child prize go to a girl wearing five-inch platform wedges.

The Best Dressed Child, Gentleman and Mature Lady winners.

The Best Dressed Child, Gentleman and Mature Lady winners.

If calling out the number of a female entrant for the men’s final was a minor hiccup, then what happened in the Best Dressed Lady announcement was a major farce. To our surprise/delight/excitement, one of the judges announced “number 311” – Kate’s number – as the winner, prompting raucous cheers from our group. Though we were quickly hushed when the host said there had been a mistake, and there was actually a runner-up to call first. The judge looked momentarily perplexed, but went along with the host’s suggestion that Kate was in fact the runner-up, and number 333 (the lady on the right in white), was in fact the winner. Kate, who was as confused as the rest of us, begrudgingly obliged when the host invited her back onto the stage (given she was already half-way there when her number was initially announced, it would be rude not to) and gave her walk of honour (downright embarrassment?) like a good sport.

But to add insult to injury, it turned out there was no prize for being the runner-up – the winner received three prizes, yet the runner-up scored zip. I broke one of my rules and asked one of the judges (not the one who made the announcement) what happened, and why they would bother announcing someone as the runner-up when there was nothing to reward them with. I was told that they thought she looked “absolutely beautiful”, they wanted to give her an “honourable mention”, and it had been the host’s error in calling her the “runner-up” (and, evidently, “the winner”). But there were no apologies made to rectify the embarrassment caused to Kate, or to encourage her to enter the competition again.

I’m well aware there have been a number of Fashions on the Field and Best Dressed competitions that have suffered judging and prize presentation malfunctions throughout the years (I’ve heard horror stories of drugged-up judges rewarding prizes to the nearest contestant, and sponsors calling out winners in the wrong prize order), but the incredibly obvious dubious nature of the Fashion at the Ebor event has to be questioned. I understand the organisers are trying to make it a fairer competition, but in doing so they are clearly passing judgement on entrants and, I suspect, encouraging the judges’ votes.

My advice for the organisers, should the contest go ahead next year which, given this year’s debacle and low amount of entrants, may not happen, is to provide terms and conditions (bizarrely, there were none!) which include the rule that “contestants must not enter on behalf of a third party”, and have all entrants sign them upon registration. It’s a very simple step, and hopefully one that will ensure a fair and smoothly-run competition for all who are involved. The practice of using a model to win a competition and promote your designs is not to be tolerated – but neither are poorly-organised Fashions on the Field competitions where organisers can influence the results.

Image credits: Fashion on the Field UK Facebook page, Newcastle Racecourse newsletter, Chester Racecourse Twitter account, and the Newmarket Racecourse website.

By Lisa Tan