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Competitive Edge: Behind the sash with Australia’s homegrown racewear winners

Racing fashion competitors are like the pageant queens of the track. Onlookers notice their obvious poise and elegant ensembles as they glide over grass in high-heels. Pristine hair and makeup is perfectly synchronised with their ensemble’s palette, and no two women ever look alike. From customising C/MEO skirts to sourcing vintage fabrics, racing fashion competitors showcase some of the most inspired styles in the game. FATR delves deep inside two of the best competitive minds to understand the motive and process of these industry pros.  

Adorn Millinery founder and 2017-2018 FATR Womenswear Runner-up Melissa Barnes participates in racing fashion competitions for the experience of dressing up and planning her outfit. “Doing Fashions on the Field is actually quite nerve-racking, you have to be brave to get up on stage and stand in front of a crowd,” Melissa said. “My FOTF obsession started when I won at the Darwin Cup in 2012 while I was six months pregnant,” she said. “My biggest win was at the Adelaide Cup in 2017, where I went on to represent SA in the Myer FOTF competition in Melbourne.”

Our FATR 2017-2018 Womenswear Winner and founder of Millinery & Racewear For Sale Leah Habel competes for the sense of pride and satisfaction she gets from curating her ensemble. “I’m always a little nervous competing, but it is rewarding and fun to show off my outfit to the crowd and the judges,” Leah said. “Often I find one stand out item which I love and take it from there, or an outfit will start with a nice fabric or a sewing pattern,” she said. “I have been known to get inspiration from alternative places, including films and architecture.”

To keep her ensembles unique, Leah updates ready-to-wear pieces and frequently wears custom-made garments. “I try to make sure that I individualise the look by thinking a little outside the square with millinery and accessories,” Leah said. “I have a collection of fabric and vintage patterns that are often my starting point,” she said. “My Nana is always my sewing consultant, and I source her expertise and value her opinion!”

When planning her ensembles, Melissa analyses her favourite trends at the time and begins with her outfit, evolving the additional elements from there. “I spend time looking up different websites and putting together ‘style boards’,” Melissa said. “I like to plan out my ideas before I commit to buying anything,” she said.

To ensure her looks are unique, Melissa tries not to buy pieces off the rack. “If I do, I like to make adjustments or layer my pieces to make sure it’s not the same as anyone else,” Melissa said. “Last year, my FATR runner up outfit was a dress from C/MEO, I wore a Cue top over it,” she said. “I also added removable tassels to the bottom of the dress that I wore to Murray Bridge.”

Melissa has sported her share of custom looks from local designers Couture + Love + Madness, Bonnie Slat.e and even a skirt made from curtain material that her mother found at the Brighton markets. Melissa’s favourite look was based around her biggest racewear investment piece to date – a Roksanda skirt.

“I covered an old straw hat with leather to make it trans-seasonal and I spray-painted a pair of mesh gloves to match,” Melissa said. “I had the top made by Couture + Love + Madness, which made me so proud to add a South Australian designer’s touch to the outfit.”

Leah’s favourite ensembles are what her Nana created from her designs. “She knows what suits me and has had input into the styles and fabrics chosen,” Leah said. “A lot of time, love and effort went into creating them, and wearing them gave me an extra sense of pride,” she said. “A few winning sashes over the years have made it special for nana and I to share our love of fashion!”

Leah’s close relationships with dressmakers help to achieve her design aspirations. “A lot of time and effort is spent on the finish of these outfits and often ideas will change as outfits evolve,” Leah said. Her investments have paid off, having won our FATR 2017-2018 competition and the Naracoorte Cup qualifier.

“I have enjoyed success at country cups and have been the winner or runner up at Warrnambool May Racing Carnival, Camperdown, Hamilton, Horsham, Casterton, Mount Gambier, Penola, Port Fairy, Warrnambool Oaks Day and Geelong St Patricks’ Day Cups.”

When selecting millinery, Leah pursues the classics. “I’ve always loved vintage millinery and enjoy wearing similar styles,” Leah said. “A milliner I have enjoyed working with over the years is Sharon Wilson from Warrnambool, I’ll often turn up with fabric or an idea for an outfit and seek her input,” she said. “She can always come up with something fabulous and unique!”

An expert milliner, Melissa makes pieces to match her outfits, adding a new edge to current trends. “There is usually a story behind my headpieces,” Melissa said. “I invest quite a lot of time into this part of my outfit because there is nowhere else you can wear a piece of art on your head other than at the races.”

To coordinate her beauty look, Melissa favours a defined eye with lashes, or a bold lip if she needs to tie the look in with her outfit. “Race day makeup should be fresh and more suited to daywear,” Melissa said. “My advice is, save the heavy contouring and dark colours for a night out.”

Leah’s hair and makeup signature style is classic. “I’ll get my makeup done by a professional makeup artist, and if a headpiece is big or difficult to fit, a hairdresser is imperative,” Leah said. “My preferred look for a day out at the races is soft glam.”

Melissa’s advice to aspiring racewear competitors is to wear what you love, not to dress for the judges. “Pick a standout feature and work the rest around that, less is more sometimes so keep your outfit balanced,” Melissa said. “I take pictures to see what colours or combinations work well together.”

Melissa’s rules for racewear are simple. “Stick to the dress codes, for example Derby Day is black and white, so do a bit of research before you plan your outfit,” Melissa said. “Get your hair and makeup done or do it yourself,” she said. “Wear millinery, and if you can’t afford to buy, then borrow or hire something - my headpieces can be booked online.”

Leah’s top tip for entering a racewear competition is confidence. “If you feel great, you’ll look great,” Leah said. “It is important to dress for the season and the weather,” she said. “Always ensure that outfits are elegant and race appropriate.”

“When planning what to wear, especially for FOTF, it’s important to mix a bit of what’s on trend with the class and sophistication of traditional racewear,” Melissa said. “Take a risk, try something new but keep in mind that elegance never goes out of style.”

Leah’s 2019 trend forecast is more tailored pants, suiting and big hats. “I’m expecting to see competitors pushing the boundaries with outfits and making bold statements in the upcoming season,” Leah said. “Francesca Cumani is my biggest fashion idol,” she said. “Australia-wide, there are a number of stylish ladies who wear outfits that I often admire, including Em Scodellaro, Brittney Tamou, Elis Crewes, Crystal Kimber and Kerrie Carruci.”

To make a first-time racing carnival less daunting, Melissa shares her fashion predictions via Racewear Carousel. She believes hemlines will stay lengthy this year, and we will see ruffles, pleats, asymmetric details, large brim hats and statement accessories.

Melissa recently gave birth to twins, but she is still planning a few racewear ensembles should she find the time to wear them. “I’m still chasing an SA FATR title, it’s been five years and I’ve come close with runner up so, who knows, it may be time to retire the heels yet.”

While Leah will be attending Adelaide Cup, she is anticipating other regional carnivals, with the ultimate goal of winning a Myer National FOTF title. “Warrnambool’s three day May Racing Carnival is always a fashion standout and a favourite of mine,” Leah said. “I am also in the process of planning my Spring Carnival outfits and cannot wait to see the Flemington fashion in full form!”

Put Melissa and Leah’s racing fashion pro tips to work at our upcoming FATR qualifying competition days. You can find our calendar and entry guidelines here.


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