Category: History

Horse Racing Fashion

While the Steeplechase is a premiere sporting event in Charleston, race-day fashion is just as important as the race itself.  The Steeplechase of Charleston is THE event to show off your bold style in a creative and fun way, while enjoying the history and tradition of horse racing in Charleston.

Origins of Horse Racing Fashion

Kings were the original horse owners, so horse racing is fittingly nicknamed the Sport of Kings. Considerable wealth was required to afford horses and pay people to ride them. The prestigious sporting event of horse racing draws in a highly fashionable crowd.

The tradition of wearing hats at horse races is a tradition that comes from both British and Southern cultures. It was started by the founder of the Kentucky Derby. Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. modeled the race after European racing events.

Previously, American racetracks were associated with immorality and vices because of the drinking and gambling.  Clark wanted to change this perception and make the race more of a society event that the upper-class would not want to miss.  In order to do this, he made full-morning dress a requirement for the event.  He recruited high-class women to attract his ideal audience and they began to attend the event wearing dresses, gloves and hats.

The Hat Makes the Outfit

Hats really became noticeably associated with horse racing in the 1960s with the spread of television. The arrival of television crews prompted race-goers to up their headgear game. Women began choosing wilder and more extravagant hats in order to stand out from the crowd.

Though fashion norms began to loosen during this time, hats remained popular at horse racing events. Showing up to a horse race without a hat was considered a major fashion faux-pas, because hats are the statement pieces. Women would coordinate their dresses, shoes, handbags, and even parasols to match their hats.

Royal Style Influence

Many people find inspiration for their race-day hats from the royal family in England. Queen Elizabeth II has gained a faithful following for her race-day headgear. It is estimated that she has worn over 5,000 hats during her reign. At the Royal Ascot Races, people even bet on what color she will choose to wear to opening day.

The hat craze began to dwindle slightly in the 80s and 90s. However, the royal weddings in 2011 and 2018 caused a resurgence of interest. A new generation of Americans was exposed to the work of milliners, women’s hat makers, as well as fascinators.

Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York

Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York on their way to the royal wedding in 2011

Fascinators are headpieces ‘fastened’ to the head by a headband or clip. They have become even more favorable than hats in recent years after the young royals were seen wearing them. Though they are different from wide brim hats and offer no sun protection, fascinators allow the wearer to stand out with their creativity and are a popular choice at horse races.

Style Tips 

The hats are not just for women! Men often don fedoras and boating-style hats to the steeplechase.  In addition to hats, seer-sucker suits, braces, and bow ties remain popular fashion choices for men. If you favor a more casual look, pastel-colored polo shirts and khakis are good options.

Women typically wear brightly-colored sundresses and skirts. If you choose to a patterned garment, be sure it will not clash with your hat. As for footwear, wear comfortable shoes to navigate the grassy terrain.

One thing is for sure, Steeplechase of Charleston attendees will be bringing their unique, Southern style to the 2019 event.

Equestrian Art | Evolution and History

Sam Robinson Artist

Equestrian Art and Steeplechase of Charleston

Equestrian art has been around for even longer than horse racing (read more about the history of horse racing in South Carolina here). Over time, it has grown and changed in order to remain relevant.

Early Equestrian Art

Early equestrian art dates back to the 16th century when monarchs and noblemen would commission portraits of their horses. Horses were often used in portraits to lend a sense of importance and splendor to their riders.

There were three common poses for the horses: standing still, trotting sedately, or balanced on its hind legs. In the trotting pose, the horses were usually portrayed with both front legs extended forward and both hind legs extended backward.

Wealthy Southern families in Charleston often imitated their European cousins by commissioning fashionable portraits of themselves and their horses from leading artists. Many of these portraits can currently be found on display at various art galleries in Charleston like the Gibbes Museum of Fine Art and the Dog and Horse Fine Art Gallery.

The Evolution

Muybridge

Attitudes of Animals in Motion,1879, printed 1881 - Eadweard Muybridge

Photography helped push artists from the traditional style of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Paintings traditionally depicted horses with tiny heads, long, rectangular bodies, and awkwardly flexed limbs. Eventually the paintings reflected a more realistic image.

Photographer Eadward Muybridge captured photo sequences that showed the footfalls in a horse’s gallop. His photographs displayed the way the feet and legs of the horses were actually moving. As a result, artists have been able to accurately portray the natural gait of the horse.

Influential Artists

Edgar Degas Race Horses

Race Horses,ca. 1885–88 - Edgar Degas

As it grew in popularity, thoroughbred racing served as an inspiration for many 19th century impressionist artists. French impressionist painter Edgar Degas referenced Muybridge’s photographs of the horse in motion, studying them for his later work. In many of his paintings, he aimed to capture the moments just before the race started.

One of the most esteemed equine artists is Sir Alfred Munnings. He travelled around England in the early 1900s taking commissions for society figures with prized horses. His impressionist style gained popularity because of his attention-to-detail. He aimed to illustrate horses as they actually looked rather than over-stylizing them.

British painter George Stubbs is considered to be the first sporting artist. In the late 18th century, he examined the anatomy of horses, spending eighteen months dissecting equine carcasses.
His detailed, anatomical drawings aided other artists.

In America, Franklin Voss was one of the most prominent equine artists of his time. Voss participated in steeplechase races as a young man, which gave him a great understanding of horse racing. His knowledge of his subject matter really shows through in his work.

Equestrian Art at the Steeplechase of Charleston

Sam Robinson is an equine artist and the official artist for the National Steeplechase Association. He follows in the tradition and art styles of Munnings and Voss. For Robinson, art is more about telling the story rather than selling as many pieces he can.

While on location at a race, he paints as much as he can and then finishes his paintings back in his studio.

We caught up with Robinson at the Carolina Cup in March to learn more about his art.

History of SC Horse Racing

The Steeplechase of Charleston is deeply rooted in the history of its home city. Charleston’s passion for horse racing goes all the way back to the early years of our country. With the beautiful historic town becoming the prime seat for racing in the South following the revolution, it's only natural that one of the oldest spectator sports in the world remains popular here.

The Jockey Club

The first American horse racing track was created in 1665 on Long Island. It wasn’t until the early 1700's that the sport came to South Carolina (long before the beginnings of The Post and Courier.) It was in 1734 that the South Carolina Gazette published the first record of racing in the state. And that same year, the South Carolina Jockey Club formed.

America’s first jockey club, composed of wealthy horse owners and breeders, was organized in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734.
- SmithsonianMag.com

This Jockey Club even predates by 16 years the formation of the English Jockey Club, which still organizes English racing today. The United States did eventually found its own national-level Jockey Club modeled on the English organization.

Organized races in South Carolina began to take place in Charleston, Edisto, Jacksonborough, Pocotaligo and Strawberry Ferry. Following the American Revolutionary War, racing continued to greatly increase in popularity.

The Washington Race Course

Charleston was the home of the Washington Course, which ran around what is today called Hampton Park. Thousands of spectators would come to the site every February, kicking off the winter social season.

It was this particular race that boosted horse racing in Charleston to a level that has lasted generations. The course was first used in 1792 for the Jockey Club Purse. This race consisted of four heats, each run with the same horses and riders. Spectators would spend time between heats making new wagers and exploring the racetrack grounds.

The South Carolina Jockey Club continued to be the exclusive club for elite members of southern society for decades. Described as the “carnival of the state,” race week in Charleston was home to shops, stands, new restaurants and real estate auctions. It was also the place to purchase newly imported horses from England.

When the nation entered into its Civil War, thoroughbred horses were lost in great numbers. A massive economic decline followed the war. Horse racing in South Carolina was all but dead because of this and the Jockey Club was disbanded for good in 1899.

The rise and fall of racing

Various wars and legislation caused American horse racing popularity to fluctuate over the years. Anti-gambling sentiments and the first World War wiped out the races tracks. But when state legislatures legalized betting in exchange for a cut of the wagers, the sport had a major turnaround.

This surge in popularity was also short-lived, as World War II led to a decline in racing during the 1950s and 1960s. But the sport pushed on during this dry spell and eventually found a series of American Triple Crown winners in the horses Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. The excitement around these winners led to a resurgence in the 1970s which lasted nearly two decades.

Popularity again began to wane from the 1980s up until today. We have had two triple crown winners in recent years, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Racing is again becoming the major social event it once was.

Steeplechase of Charleston today

Through partnership with Charleston’s The Post and Courier, Steeplechase of Charleston is set to ignite the excitement and tradition of horse racing in the south. During the height of the South Carolina Jockey Club, members hosted required parties, dinners, galas and all manner of festivities. Steeplechase of Charleston brings all of these gatherings to one place.

The Steeplechase of Charleston 2019 is a day full of activities and experiences for all ages. The event centers around five races that finish off the season for steeplechase horse racing. Just as the Jockey Club Purse once consisted of multiple race heats, so too will the Steeplechase of Charleston. This makes for a full-day event to enjoy the marketplace, food trucks, tailgating and more themed activities.

There could be no more fitting home for the conclusion of race season than the city that once held the prime seat of horse racing for the entire country. Steeplechase of Charleston is proud to keep that tradition alive in 2019 and beyond.