(Yesterday was the final day of the Royal Ascot, the British racing event run personally by the Queen of England. In our quest to bring you the freshest news from around the world, WVFC asked our own executive director, Mary Kelly Selover, to describe her first and only visit to the races. We won’t ask her to explain the hat thing, though. — Ed.)

When my London-based friend Kim said, “Why don’t you come over for Royal Ascot?” I knew I had to go. I’d experienced the same feeling 17 years earlier when Kim invited me to her wedding; as a confirmed Anglophile and dear friend, I just had to be there. Those many years ago, however, I had one itty-bitty problem. An embryo.

I had just become pregnant after seven difficult years trying to conceive, and I was fearful that airline travel might cause a miscarriage. But armed with the name of a renowned Harley Street OB-GYN and struggling with a much too-expensive white picture hat, tissue-paper wrapped in a carry-on, my husband and I set off. I was determined that I would not only wear the hat to the wedding but also to my baby’s christening.

Tiny pink spots started to appear in my panties just after we arrived in the U.K. Panic stricken, I called the doctor. His advice: no strenuous activity; sit whenever possible throughout the wedding day. Hope for the best.

Fast-forward almost two decades. “I wouldn’t miss Ascot for the world,” I heard myself saying.

And I knew I would wear that same hat, even if it were definitely not “of the moment.” That’s because my only daughter, Victoria, would also be attending, along with her two girl friends. (In photo at left, Victoria to the right of her friend Christina). From conception, to christening, to soon college-bound, that hat has been her talisman.

When most Americans think of Ascot, I would bet the image that most often comes to mind is that of Audrey Hepburn’s character in the movie My Fair Lady. When she is at the races, she appears the epitome of upper-crust pulchritude, despite her character’s common origins. But Royal Ascot attracts all levels of English society and everyone makes an effort to doll up, with varying degrees of success. Because Kim, her husband and friends sit in the Royal Enclosure (the equivalent of a U.S. VIP section), I had to apply to the American Embassy, Protocol Office, for permission to join them and receive “the badge” (an ID pin). The Dress Code for the “RE” is very strict for both gentlemen (morning dress, top hat) and ladies (day dress, hat). So as not to put a foot wrong, Kim suggested I visit the official Royal Enclosure web site, where I came upon one of those completely nutty English phrases: “a substantial fascinator.”

Image: www.ascot.co.uk

It turns out that the Fascinator is a fairly large headpiece fraught with tulle, feathers and anything else a delirious milliner might want to tack onto it. For whatever reason, I could never remember that word: While shopping last minute for the said headpieces for the girls at a London department store, I had the sales assistants in hysterics. “I am looking for a tantalizer,” I proudly chimed, realizing after I had spoken that it sounded like a sex toy. “Don’t you mean fascinator?” one of them hooted.

From left: Christina, Olivia, Victoria, and our host Kim.

Kim hosted a lovely picnic (our term is tailgate) on the Royal Ascot grounds and served champagne, quail eggs, sausages, pork buns and other British delicacies. Later, the girls and I stood goggle-eyed less than 10 feet away from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles as they rode down from Windsor Castle in magnificent coaches onto the brilliant green turf and away to the Royal Box.

By the by, the Queen is a horse-racing fiend and actually owns and operates Royal Ascot, which is quite a large, state-of-the-art facility. I have the blisters on my feet from my fuchsia Jimmy Choos to prove the latter. A delicious Pimm’s Cup did ease the pain somewhat!

Although I am not really a gambling woman, when I saw that a horse named “Don’t Tell Mary” (see my byline) would run in the fifth race, I couldn’t resist. This time, though, my hat wasn’t so lucky. I bet a “ten-ner,” pounds sterling, never to be seen again.
The good news is that, once on the “list,” one may return to the Royal Enclosure in perpetuity. So perhaps next year, my fortunes will change. What I can assure you, however, is that I will be wearing my 17-year-old white picture hat, and if possible, my daughter will be right beside me.

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  • County December 21, 2015 at 2:08 am

    We appreciate this thoughtful post from Dr Cecilia Ford with her shared personal
    memories and well expressed concerns that many of our readers share.

  • DeeJae September 24, 2009 at 11:31 am

    LOL funny. I’ll just be trotting off now to the American Embassy to apply for my “badge” in hopes that I, too, will one day be allowed inside the Royal Enclosure.

    The next stop will be Madison Avenue in search of a substantial fascinator! But alas, not until I have seen a photo of the infamous Mary Selover Hat. Heaven forbid we wearing matching hats, as I do frequently choose vintage designer pieces for such occasions. Whatever would the Queen think if we were to both don the same hat! Please do away with the suspense and charm us with a photo of yourself and your tantalizer!

  • MaryAnn June 25, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Really enjoyed reading about your adventure. Thanks for sharing.
    Great post!

  • Willse Elizabeth June 21, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    “Tantalizer?” Ha! (I’d have called it that too, or some other wrong name.)

    I kind of want to watch My Fair Lady after reading this.
    Great post!