×

We've got news for you.

Register on TimesLIVE at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

Daft or daring: Durban July’s dramatic fashion over the years

Are attendees of the annual event fashion flops or simply misunderstood?

07 July 2022 - 10:00
The Durban July horse race has been held annually on the first Saturday of July since 1897 at Greyville Racecourse in Durban. The event also showcases fashion trends.
The Durban July horse race has been held annually on the first Saturday of July since 1897 at Greyville Racecourse in Durban. The event also showcases fashion trends.
Image: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

Almost as if it were a favour from the fashion gods, this year's Durban July coincided with our government dropping the wearing of face masks. Which meant attendees could let loose — and that they did.

As a fashion writer, it was hard not to notice the swarm of fashionistas who hit the airport en route to KwaZulu-Natal. Designer shoes, shades, luggage and twin-set tracksuits dominated the space. And don't think the designer-clad masks were not lightly sitting on full beats of makeup, because they were. While locals opted for K-Way jackets in Durban's club scene, every inbound tourist was kitted out. 

With hardly any golf carts in sight, the clothing worn to the Durban July seems painfully unnecessary when attendees rock up in large gowns and sharp heels that are not suited to the grassy terrain, rubber walkways and brick pathways that dominate the space.

Fashions for men, women, and children in the reign of Louis XV from The Gallery Of French Fashions And Costumes.
Fashions for men, women, and children in the reign of Louis XV from The Gallery Of French Fashions And Costumes.
Image: Hulton Archive/Stringer

Watching the hordes of celebrities, influencers and regular folk take to the races in these ridiculous outfits, it made me think about the outlandish style of gowns our favourites love to wear. 

It's a very distinct look dominated by voluptuous silhouettes, asymmetrical shapes, buoyant gowns, detailed bodices or even a mixture of textures and techniques. But it isn't only at the July that this type of fashion is dominant. It can be seen on just about every red carpet in the country, from brunch tea parties to sneaker launches. They are sometimes out of place, but to the wearer they always have a place, even at the July.

Since 648 BC, Greeks in their robes took to the stadiums for a day at the races. While these might seem like regular robes to the average Joe, each style had an important role to play. The manner in which a chiton or himation was worn could set apart gender identity, while ornate accessories such as diadems or the quality of fabric were an indicator of status.

Edwardian ladies and gentlemen on Derby Day.
Edwardian ladies and gentlemen on Derby Day.
Image: Photo by W. G. Phillips/Phillips/Getty Images

Outside the Greek spectacles, the horse racing we know today was established in the 17th century. The fashion of this era established the baroque movement which was all about ornate detail.

Men of this time were clad in more adornments than women, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering many of the evolving style ideals of the century led to the French establishing their place on the fashion map.

What stitched it together for most of the style ethos that led up to the 20th century was the excessive nature of these eras. Whether you were bourgeoisie of royal France or an aristocrat of the earlier industrial revolutions, the idea here was that you only looked fashionable by adorning more items on your clothes.

Singer and actress Grace Jones decked out in 80s-inspired trends.
Singer and actress Grace Jones decked out in 80s-inspired trends.
Image: Photo by Barry King/WireImage
Go big or go home, 80s icon Jerry Hall models at the Royal Albert Hall.
Go big or go home, 80s icon Jerry Hall models at the Royal Albert Hall.
Image: Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images

The mass extermination of birds during the Edwardian era led to many categories of avifauna coming close to extinction. 

There is also the most modern influence in today's fashion scene — the 1980s. Noted for its consumerist ways, the big shoulders and blown-out hair of the decade are still synonymous with today's standards. While this might be associated with the nouveau riche, it did not stop the preppy old money aesthetic from employing boxier fits to capture the look of opulence. It became even more influential through our TV screens — whether you were watching Dallas or Dynasty.

A dramatic fascinator worn at the annual Ascot horse racing event in 1985.
A dramatic fascinator worn at the annual Ascot horse racing event in 1985.
Image: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And we can see it all in the SA red carpet staples. Outrageous outfits have become synonymous with haute couture garments. These garments are synonymous with wealth. We become a melting pot of different influences and trends, taking in the most demanding fashion innovations and being loyal to the smallest micro-trend.

The billowing robes of Greece are seen on tulle trains that are longer than the Rovos rail. The excessive adornments of baroque and Edwardian folk are translated into gowns that feature a chakalaka of beading, sequins and plumage all at once. Even the sculptural silhouettes are reminiscent of the eighties power dressing trends that scream “mama I made it!”

Somizi Mhlongo and entourage at the Durban July.
Somizi Mhlongo and entourage at the Durban July.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

While it would be practical to wear something comfortable and relaxed at most of these occasions, public figures layer on the glamour to invoke a sense of wealth. Is it any wonder that even our politicians do the same at the state of the nation address — their very own Met Gala if you will?

Whether you are from a township in the depths of Polokwane or from the highest skyscraper in Johannesburg, the Durban July is the only event in the country where different class groups can cosplay wealth for one weekend of debauchery.

Musician Sithelo Shozi dazzled at the 2022 Durban July.
Musician Sithelo Shozi dazzled at the 2022 Durban July.
Image: Instagram/Sithelo Shozi via Nkanyiso Nqhome

While it might seem frivolous then for SA designers to create garments for these attendees, I saw first-hand how people swarm them to commission the next big and bold gown. It doesn't just create a wealth indicator for the person wearing it, for the designer it's a walking ad with strong social media reach.

Designers like Ryan Keys are always a hit on red carpets with celebrities such as Nandi Madida making them look good. It's no wonder Twitter was set alight last week over one of the garments that was poorly constructed for a regular person out of the limelight. 

The Durban July then becomes the most important fashion event in the country. A meeting point between ostentatious style and the biggest spenders you might ever come across. It's the meeting ground for many Cinderella stories that play out in dramatic gowns and suits. Our different cultures are embedded with the spirit of showing off great style, so it should come as no surprise that the biggest race on this day is for the best-dressed list.

Support independent journalism by subscribing to the Sunday Times. Just R20 for the first month.


subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

Commenting is subject to our house rules.