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Thoroughly Modern Millinery
Melbourne Cup celebrates closers and clotheshorses alike
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2004

Sunday, January 18, 2004

BY LERON KORNREICH

MELBOURNE, Australia -- They say it takes grooming and training and good breeding to make it to the Melbourne Cup Carnival. I thought they were talking about the horses.

But it quickly became clear competition is fierce on the lawn off the track as hundreds of women strut in a high- stakes fashion competition that has managed to draw more crowds some years than Melbourne Cup Day.

I headed to Flemington Racecourse on Crown Oaks Day decked out in a fancy hat and matching dress. The train ride was surreal. After all, when was the last time you boarded an NJ Transit car filled with people decked out in loud zoot suits, cutting-edge funky dresses, and fancy feathered hats?

Just two days earlier at the Melbourne Cup, more than 100,000 gamblers and fashionistas crowded the racecourse donning elaborately decorated hats, brightly colored suits, and clutching champagne flutes. But while the horses are the attraction on the first Tuesday in November, Thursday is "Ladies Day" and the race is not to the swift so much as to the fashionable.

Officially, it's called Crown Oaks Day but unofficially it's "the day the girls come out to play." I edged my way through the crowds picnicking on the lawn toward the enclosure where two competitions take place: The Women's Classic Racewear competition and the Millinery Award.

I arrived a little after 10 a.m. and watched as 300 ladies lined up to register for the contest, which is open to anyone. They were each given a number and a chance to vie for $628,000 in cash and prizes.

I could feel the excitement as the contestants paraded across the stage in outfits ranging from tasteful to tacky, some dressed like flappers, others in Victorian garb, and others in haute couture.

It was exciting to watch as first-time entrants competed against professional models and hand-made hats went head to head against boutique bought.

Livia Dallafontana said she created her enormous wide brimmed hat complete with plastic toy horse perched amid a swirl of ribbons. She lost the competition to a woman dressed in a less overstated dusty pink ensemble with a matching designer-made hat.

Deborah Truesdale couldn't believe it when her pink feathered top hat got her into the semifinals of the millinery competition. She told me she had asked designer Dolly Vardin to match it to a pink suit. In the end, she lost to a fellow non-model, Michelle Panton, who donned a Susan Drerup hat decorated with fluttering red butterflies.

There was plenty to photograph: a group of women of Italian ancestry dressing in coordinated green, red and white; men dressed as middle-aged women trying to convince security to let them onto the stage to compete; a group dressed as cavemen and cavewomen complete with clubs and plastic bones; women in full Victorian regalia, including white wigs and white face powder.

Two days later, on Emirates Stakes Day, children and teens get a chance to show their fashion savvy. As soon as the decked-out Cup Carnival crowds clear the racetrack, the fashionistas take over Melbourne's Federation Square for the city's Fashion Week.

* Getting there: The official Cup Carnival Web site is www.vrc. net.au. Melbourne Cup Day always runs on the first Tuesday in November. Crown Oaks Day is held two days later. Lawn tickets can be purchased on the day of the race.