Melbourne Cup Carnival: the race that stops a nation

November 18, 2014

A staple of every Australian’s social calendar, the Melbourne Cup Carnival is the most prestigious sporting and fashion event in the country. With over 325,000 people in attendance this year at the Flemington racecourse in Melbourne, including many local and international celebrities, the Carnival has even attracted royalty in the past.

In 1861, a mere 4,000 people attended the first-ever Melbourne Cup at the racecourse. As Victoria was in the middle of a Gold Rush and its inhabitants eager to indulge in their new wealth, the event quickly became the social event of the season.

“There was barely standing room on the lawn and many ladies were unable to find a seat for the whole day. The Paddock was overcrowded to excess and the Hill was simply a mass of human beings. It has reached a stage now that almost everyone in Melbourne goes to the spring racing,” notes the Australasian Newspaper of 1871.

In 1962, the VRC Committee introduced Fashions on the Field to “woo more women to the races.” The competition instantly captured the public’s interest, and quickly became the largest and most prestigious outdoor fashion event in Australia.

Throughout the years, it has attracted not only celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Paris and Nikki Hilton, and Snoop Dogg, but also British Royalty: Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

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This year’s 154th Melbourne Cup Carnival was divided into four days of festivities, each with its own unique style, culture and rules.

AAMI Victoria Derby Day, known for the strict white and black dress code, is the traditional opening day of the races. As per custom, a cornflower could be seen in the lapels of many of the men and the sudden sprinkle of rain did nothing to deter anyone from celebrating.

The Emirates Melbourne Cup Day, with one of the richest horserace prizes in the world, is a national holiday in Australia. The day begins with the Melbourne Cup Parade down Swanston Street to Federation Square and at precisely 3 p.m. every Aussie holds their breath for “the race that stops a nation.”

The highly anticipated race crowned Protectionist as the winner, ridden by Ryan Moore and trained by Andreas Wöhler. Germany’s first-ever win in this race claimed the majority at an astonishing $6.2 million prize pool.

Men wear a yellow rose and women pull out all the stops in colourful knee-length dresses, and the most intricate and outrageous millinery available.

The Crown Oaks Day is considered the Ladies Day of the Carnival. Pastels, lace and pink roses were worn by those in attendance.

The final day is the Emirates Stakes Day, or Family Day. Fashion is summery and a little more relaxed. Entertainment specifically meant for children is provided throughout the day.

Continuing the 52-year tradition, the Fashion in the Field stakes was held on the racecourse grounds, hosted by the Australian department store Myer. The different divisions included Women’s, Men’s, Family and Junior Racewear, as well as Design and Millinery Awards, with over 1,000 entrants vying for $400,000 in prizes.

Dressed in elegant frocks and show-stopping hats, three winners were chosen daily for the Women’s Racewear competition, and Brodie Worrell chosen as the overall National winner. Worrell impressed in a white tea-length Toni Maticevski dress worthy of Audrey Hepburn, with black accessories and an abstract flower-shaped head piece by Felicity Northeast.

The grounds were decorated with over 16,000 rose bushes, many of them the traditional yellow rose of Melbourne Cup Day. It took gardens manager Terry Freeman five months to achieve the effect.

In general admission, attendees laid out picnics on the lawn and spent the days drinking champagne. Live performances by pop group Human Nature, So You Think You Can Dance winner Timomatic and recent X-Factor winner Marlisa Punzalan provided entertainment.

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The Birdcage Enclosure, found to the left of the racecourse, was the area reserved for VIPs and celebrities. Resembling a miniature village of terraces and marquees, this is where high fashion could be found. Johnnie Walker, Swisse, Schweppes and Lavazza were just some of the companies hosting the marquees. Upon entering, the guests could expect to be offered gourmet canapés and signature cocktails. Some were meant for relaxing and others had a nightclub atmosphere, complete with continuous bursts of confetti.

Australia’s very own Thor, Chris Hemsworth, and Wolf of Wall Street star Margot Robbie spent time in the Birdcage, while Solange Knowles could be seen DJing. Fashion house heiress Margherita Maccapani Missoni, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, and Good Charlotte vocalists Joel and Benji Madden also joined the festivities.

But no matter how much was happening on the field or in the VIP area, the focus remained on the races. Everywhere you looked, the impeccably dressed guests were betting, cheering and, if they were lucky, counting their winnings. The energy was infectious and excitement exuded from the race grounds.

It was an unforgettable experience — FAJO will be back!

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By Katia Ostapets
Photography by Katia Ostapets

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