“We’re not here gambling on the horses: we’re gambling on ourselves” Ladies’ Day at Punchestown: 120 years of Festival Fashion

“We’re not here gambling on the horses: we’re gambling on ourselves” 

Ladies’ Day at Punchestown: 120 years of Festival Fashion 

Dr Emma Lyons 

It’s ‘Not free admittance, not flowers handed out at the gate, not special races for women punters only. “They get ducked out”.’ This was the description of Ladies’ Day at Punchestown given by regular racegoer ‘Whistler’ to Irish Times staff reporter Mary Maher on her drive down to the 1966 Punchestown Festival.  

On her arrival, she observed ‘The bobbing parade of flowerpot hats began well outside the curved quarter-mile of corrugated fence and merged into a forest or plumage inside. The women were there in varying degrees of elegance, each with her uniformly correct black patent shoes and bag, some with matching everything, a few with last-minute accessories like racing cards and binoculars. The men were there, too, looking totally absorbed.’ 

Although the 2021 Ladies’ Day at the Punchestown Festival may not be taking place, as happened in 1920 and 2020 due to the general strikes (see my other piece on this topic) and the COVID-19 pandemic, I think a gentle reminder of what we’re missing is necessary. 

Ladies’ Day at the Punchestown Festival has changed little over the years, receiving regular attention from newspaper reporters over the centuries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish Times had a ‘lady correspondent’ who reported on the ‘Dresses at Punchestown’. In 1899, describing the fashion at ‘Glorious Punchestown’, the unnamed ‘lady correspondent’ noted that ‘Many people feared that the fixture of the meeting for so early a date in April might rob it of its fashionable and picturesque appearance, as cold weather is not generally conducive to smart dressing, but even winter attire can now-a-days be made of such lovely and brilliant tintings [sic] that a gay effect can always be so secured, and as for the galaxy of beauty and fashion where should it be found’ if not at Punchestown.  

She continued, writing ‘That Punchestown sets the fashions for the early summer is now a received proverb, and certainly the fickle dame must have been busy, so varied, so elaborate, so artistic were the creations that met the eye at every turn.  

The fashion at the 1908 Punchestown Festival was considered sufficiently important to have a Weekly Irish Times article entitled ‘Spring Fashions at Punchestown’, dedicated entirely to fashion. The reporter highlighted the change in fashion from previous years, and the emergence of a new ‘tailored’ trend: 

‘As a vista of fashion, the scene was perhaps not so attractive as on many previous occasions, owing to the prevalence of the tailor-made modes, which, though eminently suited for a day in the open air, do not combine to make so brilliant and effective a picture as the gay muslins and chiffons and the lace and the fanciful chapeaux that are invariably donned under the influence of a more genial atmosphere. It did not, however, need a second glance at the Hunt Stand to realise how very smart the glorified tailor-made costume could be. Whether in cloth, serge, or tweed it demonstrated itself as the gown par excellence for Punchestown. 

 Four years later, in 1912, the daily Irish Times published an article entitled ‘Fashion at Punchestown’, wherein it was highlighted that ‘fashion and beauty reigned supreme’ on the day, with many of the ‘smartest people’ choosing to wear ‘dark coloured costumes, with sometimes brilliant and daring colours in their hats’. As with that of 1908, the 1912 article again noted a change in fashion preferences, this time highlighting that the hats ‘were very much smaller than we have seen for some years, while light cloth gaiters were also in evidence’. By 1914, fashion was again reported to have changed. Writing in April of that year, just four months before the outbreak of World War I, the lady correspondent noted that the many ‘smartly-gowned women’ at the races reminded her more of the Dublin Horse Show rather than the Punchestown Festival. Yet, she did stress that these ‘costumes and gowns were very charming’ and the women ‘chic, pretty and piquant’. The ‘lady correspondent’ also noted that ‘quite a lot of black was worn, and the beautiful shade of jonc-fawn relieved with white, and several shades of lime. The French idea of the black gown, with a brilliant dash of colour either in the hat or corsage was followed by many women, giving scope for originality and individuality’. This was the first reference to any ‘internationally inspired’ fashion, and is interesting to see it mentioned shortly before the outbreak of war. However, despite the outbreak of war, the Festival continued, and in April 1915 Switzer’s had a large ad in the Irsh Times advertising the ‘ready-to-wear fashions for Punchestown’ that they had in stock, while the following year, (the festival taking place just before the 1916 Easter Rising – see my article on this) many larger shops in Dublin, including Kellett’s, Holmes’, Robert & Co., and Switzer’s, all located in the city centre, placed large and detailed advertisements regarding clothes such as ‘Charming Silk Model Costumes and Gowns’, in the Irish Times and its ‘Fashion Intelligence’ section. 

Those attending the 1924 Ladies’ Day at Punchestown had to contend with some poor weather, and despite some grumbling the ladies still stepped out in their ‘dainty footgear’, despite the ‘muddy paths and soaking swards’. They did, however, cover their ‘smart costumes with mackintoshes or raincoats, and umbrellas concealed the millinery, which is generally one of the striking characteristics of the fashion side of the gathering’.  A similar concealment of style was highlighted 10 years later, when a 1934 article headline reported ‘Fashions Obscured by Mackintoshes’, resulting in only an ‘occasional glimpse of a scarf collar tied high under the chin, which gave one the keynote to the ensemble hidden beneath the owner’s mackintosh’. However, the 1940 Punchestown Festival was not so unlucky, with ‘brilliant sunshine and blue skies, resulting in a spring fashion parade as ‘virtually every woman came smartly clad in clothing whose chief feature was vivid colour’, including scarlet. Additionally, while ‘the hats were mostly small, and tilted forward on the head’, the variety in style was immense, varying from ‘small flowered toques with yards of veiling, [to] felt jockey caps, flat straw sailors, and even large-brimmed felt hats to match the wearers’ costumes’. 

The fine weather also made an appearance for the 1951 Punchestown Ladies’ day, allowing the ladies to display their ‘splendid’ costumes, while the 1955 the ‘lovely summer weather’ allowed Punchestown to retain its reputation as ‘the first outdoor fashion parade of the season’. The weather, which was ‘unkind for Ladies’ Day’ also appears in the Ladies’ Day reports of 1962 and 1964, although, as seen at the beginning, 1966 allowed the ‘flowerpot hats’ made an appearance without needing to be hidden with umbrellas.  

Fewer reports appear in the newspapers for the 1970s-1990s, although we are reassured by the press that the ‘impeccable’ fashion continued, with big hats, dainty shoes and ‘beautiful’ coats still making an appearance, as well as some clothes which, quite simply, were ‘utterly wrong’ and ‘quite ridiculous’ for a National Hunt festival like Punchestown. Similar themes continue into the 1990s, where Carol O’Meara of the Southern Star spotted ‘all the fashionable ladies’ the 1995 Punchestown Festival Ladies’ Day, but like so many reporters over the years, noted the impracticalities for some of the ‘way-out hats and flimsy, practically off-the-shoulder dresses’. Similar themes appear in the 21st-century reports, with some going so far as to suggest that some are so concerned with the Ladies’ Day best-dressed competitions that some ‘spend an entire afternoon at Punchestown and not see a race, let alone a horse running in one’. One attendee at the 2018 Ladies’ Day, dressed glamorously ‘in a purple cape and fur-trimmed gloves’, told the reporter that she pays little attention to the horses. Instead, she and her friends were there solely for the ‘fashion’, spending at least the last month deciding on the outfit. 

While many will not have spent the last month choosing their outfit for the 2020 Ladies’ Day at the Punchestown Festival, this piece shows that, for the last 120 years, fashion has played an important part in the festival for many; ladies, their admirers, reporters and businesses, with 1,000s of ladies following the great tradition of putting their best foot forward for the Ladies’ Day at the annual Punchestown Festival, even if it be in ‘dainty shoes’. 

The article also gives some observations on the ‘dos and don’ts’ of dressing for the Punchestown Festival,  

‘many sartorial mistakes … some of them have been so frightful that they have added considerably to the general gaiety. Just suppose you have been misguided enough to invest in a filmy nylon frock for ‘Ladies’ Day”. This in itself is bad enough. But it assumes the proportions of a subject for derisive laughter if you persist in wearing it should the sunshine disappear and the rainclouds hang low.’