In this comprehensive guide to race dress shopping, we start by taking a look at what makes a good race dress and then review some of the best places to shop online and in stores.
This is one epic post, so I encourage you to use the links below if you’d like to jump to a specific section:
The Definition of a Race Dress
This is a hard one to define. Better to start with what a race dress is not.
It’s not a cocktail dress.
It’s not evening wear.
It’s not formal.
It’s certainly not club wear.
It is dressier than resort wear or day wear.
Perhaps best described as an entire, well-planned, head to toe outfit.
Classy and modest. Classic, with a modern twist.
I did say it was hard to define!
Millinery is a must. Other features, like gloves and accessories, need to be considered too.
And like all fashion, race wear trends are forever changing and evolving, so it’s up to you to keep up to date and inject your own personal style into your outfits.
Guidelines for Choosing a Suitable Race Dress
Race dresses are typically modest.
In the past few years we have seen a longer hemline dominate FOTF stages. The midi length is by far the most popular dress length.
But, hemlines have been creeping up in the last year and when done right, an above the knee dress can be a real statement too.
Your top half should also be classy, so straps are thicker and feature sleeves are popular. No plunging necklines, so conceal your cleavage and save it for later (!)
When it comes to fabric, steer clear of anything clingy or disco-y. Heavier fabrics with a good fall and drape are favored. Lace, brocade and jacquards are always a popular fabric choice.
I do want to mention here, however, that if you are just attending the races for a fun-filled day with the girls without the stress of competing, your outfits can be slightly less conservative.
Myer ambassadors and style icons, like Jen Hawkins, Steph Smith and Rebecca Judd don’t shy away from the odd spaghetti strap. There are still some strapless numbers, or skirts with a high split, or an open back floating around looking gorgeous. Just keep to a modest length.
Popular Race Day Dress Shapes
Here are some favourite silhouettes for race dresses:
The Full Skirt
Whether it’s a dress or a skirt, a full skirt is always on trend at the races. The way it falls is a classic look and suits most body shapes.
The skirt can have an abundance of fabric and layers, or a mullet style hem, or panels. It is fun to play around with this shape and every year there are new trends emerging within this style.
An elegant cut, the pencil dress is a popular silhouette for a race wear dress. The fabric is usually the star. Beautiful laces, bold prints and colour blocking are all features of the pencil dress.
When starting out in racing fashion, the full skirt or the pencil skirt would be the best to try out as they are a classic cut, the shape suits most people and they are easily found in stores.
A fishtail skirt is a fun twist on a pencil dress. The fishtail can be ruffled or layered and be made in a contrasting fabric to the main skirt. It provides a feminine shape and adds interest to an otherwise plain silhouette.
High necklines are usually favored amongst race dresses, but this doesn’t mean you have to be restricted to one style. Have fun with unusual designs around the neck.
There are cut outs, sheer overlays over a lower neckline, neck features such as lace going up the neck and there are even some cute collars around that won’t remind you of your high school uniform.
When it comes to fabrics, avoid anything thin or stretchy. Fabrics with a decent thickness, or weight, create a great shape and fall nicely in a skirt.
There are no rules for prints! If you think it looks good, give it a go. Ladies like to wear bold, colourful prints to the races. Some people even print clash and wear a few together.
It’s also good to be aware of the latest fashion trends when choosing your dress shape as the trends do change over time. To learn about the latest trends, you can download my comprehensive Spring Racing Fashion Trends Report.
It’s Okay to Stand Out
Attending the races is a bit of a showy day. An opportunity to express yourself through fashion.
Let’s face it, you’ve been planning your outfit for months because you know there will be lots of other fashion loving women there who will have done the same. It’s your time to shine creatively and it’s a chance to step out of your comfort zone, try something new and show off your styling skills.
Think about how you can give your outfit the ‘WOW’ factor.
You spend a lot of the day discussing outfits, your own and others. You also have the chance to give and receive compliments and share ideas on DIY tips, brands and places to shop.
So, while you may feel uncomfortable ducking into the petrol station before a race, you will feel totally normal as soon as you enter the race track and see everyone else dressed to the nines.
Where to Shop: The Top Online Stores
When looking for race dresses, online shopping is great because there are so many options at the click of a mouse.
You can spend all day at a shopping centre walking into each and every shop, sorting through racks upon racks, getting really, really tired. Especially if your local shopping centre doesn’t have a huge variety.
So, let’s take a look at some popular online stores that deliver Australia wide.
ASOS is one of the largest international online shopping sites. Not only does ASOS stock hundreds of brands, they also have the ASOS label.
ASOS is great for race dresses – a lot of ladies find race appropriate clothing here and some FOTF winners have been decked out in ASOS purchases from head to toe, accessories included.
A huge bonus to their brand is the Free shipping and (the newly introduced) Free returns! For those who are too scared to purchase without first trying something on, you can return the item for a full refund and not have to cover any postage costs. Awesome.
Another benefit is that their range is very reasonably priced, ranging from $20 to $700 (for the designer items). They also offer student discounts and are often on sale!
The Iconic is an Australian based website that stocks Australian brands, as well as international. They have a wide variety of labels, styles and price ranges and I have had no trouble finding some beautiful dresses I would wear to the races.
There is free next day delivery for orders over $100 and 100-day free returns. If you live in Sydney or Melbourne they also offer three-hour delivery! Great for that last minute outfit you put together.
Net-a-Porter is definitely the luxury online fashion shopping destination boasting hundreds of upmarket labels. The items can range from $200 to $6000 (yikes).
They offer free shipping when you spend over $300 (not that hard to do) and they offer free returns within 28 days.
Although 90% of the items here are out of my price range, I do get a lot of joy swooning through pages of dress perfection, dreaming of what I would buy if I’d just won Saturday’s lotto jackpot…haha.
Moda Operandi is an online retailer that allows you to pre-order the next season’s looks straight from the runway, months before they are available anywhere else. They also offer a range of curated buy-now designer styles.
The Outnet stocks a wide selection of designer fashion brands at a discount price of up to 75% off (this is my kind of shop haha). It’s like an outlet store for high end designers, and a great way to be able to shop the top brands without spending an arm and a leg.
David Jones has a wide range of racing fashion appropriate brands such as Thurley, Aurelio Costarella, Alice McCall, Alexander McQueen, Ellery and Lover.
I like David Jones because if you live near one, you can do some online shopping, make a list of all the dresses you want to try on, then head to your local store to try them all on.
For online orders it is free standard postage when you spend over $100, express and overnight delivery incur fees of $12- $15. Otherwise you can shop online and pick it up from your local David Jones store. They also offer refunds in store and for online orders- but you have to cover return postage costs.
Myer has the same benefits as David Jones, in terms of trying things on in store, and they also carry a good range. They stock the popular Self Portrait, Toni Maticevski, Asilio, Cue, Jayson Brunsdon and Yeojin Bae.
Myer also sponsors a lot of Fashions on the Field competitions, so sometimes women like to shop Myer brands for those events- although it’s controversial whether or not it helps out in nabbing sashes.
Also with Myer and David Jones, if you hold store cards you can get points too!
The postage is free for orders over $100 or you can pick up from your local store. They offer full returns in store or you can post it back at your own cost for a refund.
Spring Trends Report
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Where to Shop: The Top Brick-and-Mortar Stores
When I’m in a hurry and looking for a race dress at a shopping centre, I tend to make a beeline for a handful of stores.
Trying to get through a whole shopping centre in just a couple of hours means you have to be quick, so knowing in advance where you want to look and being able to do a quick lap in each store is a great skill to have.
Most shopping centers in Australia have similar brands.
First, I always head to the major department stores- Myer and David Jones, as their range is quite impressive. I look for certain brands (revealed in the next section), but also while I’m there I do a quick lap of the designer section for fabrics/ prints that catch my eye.
The good thing about department stores is that if you are unsure of an item, you can always purchase it just in case and return it later if it ends up being a mistake.
Other shops I frequent are:
- Veronika Maine
- Alice McCall
- Dion Lee
- Sass & Bide
- Manning Cartell
- Scanlan Theodore
Popular Brands for Race Dresses
Here are some brands I love looking at for on-trend, fine fitting race dresses…
- Nicola Finetti
- Rachel Gilbert
- Keepsake The Label
- Rotate by Birger Christensen
- Toni Maticevski
- Alex Perry
- Alice McCall
- By Johnny
- Yeojin Bae
- Peter Pilotto
- Self Portrait
Shopping for millinery to suit your race day dresses used to be a bit of a challenge. In the past you would search through Google to look at each individual milliner’s websites having to jump between sites. In 2017 I created Millinery Market, which is a one stop shop where you can view over 1,500 different hats from talented milliners and race enthusiasts across Australia, New Zealand, US, UK and Ireland. You can also find a range of second hand hats for sale and hats for hire.
If you are after a bespoke hat to match your race day outfit, you can check out the Milliner Directory, which will tell you a milliner’s training, experience, signature style, prizes, average cost and more.
Buying Second Hand Race Dresses
If you’re looking for a cheap race dress, buying second hand can be a good option and you’ll often find pieces that are practically new having only been worn once. Here’s a couple of places to look…
‘Millinery and Racewear for Sale Australia’ Facebook Group
The Millinery and Racewear for Sale Australia Facebook Group is the ultimate when it comes to finding second hand race wear. There are over 21, 000 members!!
With this group you can negotiate with sellers over prices and you can put your items up for sale or on threads where you think they might be bought.
Women often sell complete outfits that they’ve worn once to a race, even some they have won competitions in.
Brand Name Buy & Sell Facebook Groups
A lot of brands have a Facebook group dedicated to buying and selling their second hand dresses.
Type into the search bar the brand you are looking such as “Cue”, followed by the words “buy and sell” and it will often come up. You can buy second hand dresses at discounted prices and negotiate with the seller too.
How Much Should I Spend on a Race Dress
The beauty of race wear outfits is that you can spend as little or as much as you like.
There is no rule saying top designer pieces will win you sashes in FOTF, although sometimes it does help. If you can hunt around, shop bargains, buy second hand or even sew your own ensemble you can win in an outfit as little as $50-$200!
DIY is a big part of a race wear outfits for me as I can’t afford to be spending too much money- although sometimes I lash out and have been known to spend $1000 to $1500 on an outfit. But that only happens when I’ve been madly saving and am preparing for a big event like Spring Carnival.
Bespoke outfits can cost anywhere from $200 to a few thousand dollars depending on who is making it, how complex the design is, if you supply the fabrics and how long it takes to make it.
The least I have spent on an outfit is $200 and that is from recycling old pieces in my wardrobe and buying some beads or extra fabric to embellish it.
I spend anywhere from $500 to $1000 on bespoke garments (not including fabrics). The outfit shown below cost me $1000. I purchased the fabric in China for $500 and wore this on Melbourne Cup Day 2016.
Tips for Finding a Bargain
Finding a bargain is a super exciting time in a thrifty shopper’s life. I love finding cheap race dresses at a fraction of the retail price, and take a lot of pride in being able to put a beautiful outfit together on a shoestring budget.
Here are some of my best bargain hunting tips that I’ve picked up over the years…
Shop the Sale
Big brands like Myer usually hold two big sales a year and if you hold out on the initial sale, which tends to be 30% to 50% off, a few weeks later a lot of stock will go to 70% off.
I purchased a beautiful Aurellio Costarella teal silk dress from Myer a few years ago. It was stunning, I loved the shape and colour, although it was way too short for Fashions on the Field.
Stumbling upon it during one of their ‘70% off already reduced prices’ sale, I nabbed it for $100! Originally, it was $1000!!! Bargain.
First, I embellished the sleeves of the dress. Then wore a longer pencil skirt from Cue (also on sale) over the top of it and managed to place second at Melbourne Cup Day in Flemington!!
More recently, during my Spring Carnival trip in 2018, I purchased a stunning $2000 Alex Perry Gown on sale for $500. I made a few alterations to the dress (the night before I might add eep!) and wore it to Oaks Day where I was thrilled to make the top 10 in FOTF.
Follow your Faves
Follow your favourite brands on social media or join their mailing list to find out when they are having upcoming sales.
Often a brand will post on Instagram or Twitter about an upcoming sale or a one-day pop up sale. Being in the know can save you lots.
Being a good bargain shopper means keeping an eye out all year round and buying things on sale that you think you will want to wear later on that year.
Generally, all stores have a big mid-year sale and, of course, the over-crowded and maddening, but somehow unmissable Boxing Day sale.
Throughout the year a store might just put up a surprise sale rack- so it’s good to head to the shops every now and again.
If you purchase an item full price and it goes on sale a few days later (or at a time within the returns policy of the store) don’t be afraid to go back in with your item.
As long as it is still unworn, with tags attached and you have your receipt, you can ask for a price adjustment and be refunded the extra money or have it put onto a gift card for future purchases.
Having worked in retail it is a very common thing people do, and you are within your rights to do so, so don’t feel embarrassed!!
Online stores such as ASOS and The Iconic are often on sale throughout the year and you can buy a race dress for as little as $40.
I go to op-shops for a quick look every now and again, hunting for hidden treasures. I once found a beautiful, gold two-piece skirt and top set for $7!
Hopefully this race dress shopping guide has given you some ideas for finding a race dress. If you’re also looking for a fascinator to go with your race dress, check out Millinery Market. There’s over 1,500 beautiful, handcrafted hats made by talented milliners.