Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Great British Events: The Derby


As tickets for the Investec Derby Festival go on sale to the public, Stylist considers the spectacle and legacy of the revered race meet kicking off Britain’s epic summer celebrations.

The Queen's dignified public persona - unwavering for 364 days of the year - seems to diminish for a few hours in early June. It is in the Royal Box at Epsom Downs that the monarch seems to forget that the eyes of the world are upon her and she becomes, just a little fierce. Her quiet reserve gives way to bouts of exhilarated cheering during tense races, while her composure is ruffled when her horses are pipped to the post.

It's fitting then, that celebrations for the global spectacle of her Diamond Jubilee will begin at the place where the unguarded Queen reveals glimpses of the real Elizabeth - and where more than 130,000 racegoers from aristocrats to hen parties, gather together in their finery at the start of summer. So what has given the prestigious race such enduring appeal?

A Chequered Past

From a suffragette’s suicide by horse in 1913 to the first female owner to triumph in the race five years later, and the 1980s mystery of the kidnapped Derby hero Shergar, the 232-year-old Derby has earned a pivotal place in Britain’s social and cultural history.

Suffragette Emily Davison chose the 1913 race to make one of the most drastic protests the modern world had ever seen by stepping out in front of King George V's horse Anmer. Many believe the militant woman's rights activist went to the high-profile race not to become a martyr, but to fix a Women's Social & Political Union flag onto the animal and was trampled. Herbert Jones, the jockey, suffered injuries and later said he was always "haunted by that woman's face."

Five years later women got the vote and Lady James Douglas [pictured above middle] became the first woman to own a Derby winner when her colt Gainsborough won the Classic at Epsom. However, horse-racing remains a male-dominated enterprise and a female trainer has yet to put a thoroughbred first past the Derby post.

The most recent controversy to surround the event was the theft of its most acclaimed four-legged victor, Shergar. When the prize bay colt won the 1981 Derby by an astounding 10 lengths - the longest winning margin in the race's history - no one could have foreseen that the stallion's international fame would make him the focus of an elaborate kidnap plot. Shortly before stud season in 1983, a gang of masked gunman with a horse trailer arrived at Shergar's stable in Ireland and took the horse, who was never seen again. Theories surrounding the disappearance have inspired numerous books, documentaries, and even a Hollywood movie.

Fashion Moments

As one of the first high-profile events in summer's social calendar, the Derby provides an opportunity to sport spring-summer designs, including, of course, spectacular hats.

Last year's Derby saw the former Kate Middleton showcase a playful new style, opting for a nostalgic up-do and an uncharacteristically short floaty cream dress, in keeping with the jubilant mood of the event. The Duchess also sported an elegant Cappuccino-coloured Whiteley hat – signaling a move away from fussy fascinators.

Catherine may have taken her cue to be daring for the Derby from the late Princess Diana, who rejoiced in wearing elaborate and stand-out designs to the event. The Victor Edelstein black and white polka-dot outfit she chose for the occasion in 1986 turned heads and became one of the most famous looks of the era. It even inspired Danbury Mint to create a mini replica of the close-fitting dress and wide-brimmed hat, so die-hard Diana fans could add the piece to their dolls' wardrobe collection.

While hats can be worn to any of the Derby race days - and are essential for the Queen's Stand - Ladies Day has proved the most popular meet to show off flamboyant headgear. Edgy supermodel Erin O'Connor led the way last year in an intricate 19th century bonnet-inspired creation by Louis Mariette and was among many racegoers embracing bigger, bolder designs.

In case a stream of paparazzi snapping away isn't enough incentive to doll-up, Ladies Day awards a prize to the the best-groomed punter. Last year's winner was Scottish milliner Mimi Theobold, who shone in a 1950's vintage dress she bought on eBay and one of her own hats - a black and white bonnet reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's fabulous race day headpiece in My Fair Lady

High Society

In 1779, the 12th Earl of Derby and his friend Sir Charles Bunbury came up with the idea for the event - and tossed a coin to decide who it would be named after. Thankfully Derby won, and the race is now one of the richest in Britain, with a total prize fund of £1.25 million.

The roots of the prestigious event lay firmly with England's aristocracy but the modern Derby attracts more than 130,000 people from across the county - ranging from royals and serious gamblers to racegoers who seem to care less about odds-on favourites than dressing up for a summer day out.

While the Queen sticks to the Royal Box, Prince Harry and his pals have been pictured in their top hat and tails soaking up the atmosphere among the likes of heiress Tamara Ecclestone and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed - a prolific racehorse owner.

The Investec Derby is also renowned for its ability to inspire even the most outlandish of celebrities, Chantelle Houghton and Jeremy Kyle to name a few, to don such sophisticated dress they are indistinguishable from the more thoroughbred guests.

So how can Derby attendees avoid any awkward social faux pas? Pronounce its name correctly for a start, says British etiquette expert William Hanson. "It's pronounced 'dar-be,'" Hanson advises. "And although some call this type of event 'horse-racing’, those in the know refer to it as ‘racing.'"

Jo Bryant from Debrett's, the authority on good manners since 1769, passed on some top tips for getting through the day with decorum.

Betting: Have a flutter but moderate any excessive reactions. If you've staked your money on a loser, don't sulk or give way to petulance or moodiness. Accept your loss with equanimity and move on.

Winning: Don't gloat. If you're a lucky winner, you can enjoy a quiet sense of satisfaction - but don't get too over-excited. Other people (especially if they haven't been lucky) will find your antics wearisome.

Track-side: Of course, you will find the race exciting (especially if you've backed a real contender) but keep loud shouting or excited screaming to the minimum - especially if you're very close to other people. Be careful to avoid blocking others' views of the track.

This year's Investec Derby Festival runs from Friday 1 June to Saturday 2 June, with tickets now available to purchase. It's one of many great annual British events - check out some more dates for the diary below.

Share your Derby stories with us on Twitter

Words: Anna Pollitt

Picture credits: Rex Features

The Boat Race

Saturday 7 April

Stock up on the fizz and whip out the bunting for the world's most anticipated two-horse race. Whether you trek down to the river or make an event of it at home with a few friends and Auntie, this quintessentially British bonanza is not one to be missed.

The Chelsea Flower Show

Tuesday 22 May to Saturday 26 May

A perfect chance to showcase any Downton Abbey inspired apparel that may have found its way into your wardrobe over the past few seasons, the fragrant festival also provides an opportunity for a touch of high-end celebrity-spotting - Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Mirren were among the A-listers browsing among the blooms at last year's show.

Hay Literary Festival

Thursday 31 May to Sunday 10 June

This year is the 25th anniversary of the literary and arts festival famously described by Bill Clinton as "The Woodstock of the mind."

Taking place in Hay-On-Wye in Powys, Mid Wales, the event promises 10 days of "music, comedy, argument and literature."


Monday 25 June to Sunday 8 July

Strawberries and cream always taste better on the manicured lawns of Wimbledon.

As well as Pimms-quaffing royalty and tennis wags, superstars like Jay-Z have been known to enjoy a summer day watching the game in South London.

Latitude Festival

Thursday 12 July to Sunday 15 July

As austerity forces more Brits to take staycations than ever before, young festivals like Latitude have quickly become a staple part of the social calendar.

As well as music, there's theatre, art, comedy, cabaret, poetry, politics, dance and literature to dig into at the beautiful Henham Park in Southwold, Suffolk.

The Proms

Friday 13 July to Saturday 8 September

A chance to view the awesome Albert Hall and soak up some of the world's finest live classical music, the Proms peaks with a much sought-after Last Night concert, which often sees "Prommers" queuing overnight to secure tickets.

Port Eliot Festival

Thursday 19 July to Sunday 22 July

The laid-back Port Eliot Festival in St Germans, Cornwall, provides a chance for a cultural mini-holiday, with boutique camping and romantic views of the English countryside amid a bohemian celebration of literature, music and above all, the "craic."

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Friday 3 August to Monday 27 August

A pilgrimage for London's media luvvies, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival boasts the the title of largest annual cultural festival in the world and is celebrated for its diverse entertainment offerings.

This year's shows include the likes of Alan Davies and Jimmy Carr - as well as Bellylicious the Sequel - Confessions of a Belly Dance Diva and The Ginge, the Geordie and the Geek.

Goodwood Revival

Friday 14 September to Sunday 16 September

"The Goodwood Revival really is a magical step back in time, a unique chance to revel in the glamour and allure of motor racing in the romantic time capsule of the golden era of motor racing at one of the world’s most authentic circuits."

In other words it provides a fabulous opportunity to dress like a Hollywood starlet and pretend to own a fleet of serious motors.

Abergavenny Food & Drink Festival

Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 September

Serious foodies have flocked to the South Wales market town for its annual celebration of gorgeous grub since 1999, and this year is set to be its biggest event yet. As well as celebrated chefs and over 180 stands, a range of activities entertain full-up punters - last year there was a children’s festival, fireworks display and an evening with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.