Once bastions of gentility and the preserve of toffs, the likes of Royal Ascot and Henley Regatta are now a free-for-all. Katie Glass goes on a riotous safari to learn the new rules of society.
On the dancefloor, men in shiny Moss Bros waistcoats and tight white jeans are dancing the funky chicken, sockless in tassled loafers, to the refrains of Dizzee Rascal. Beside them, girls with fake St Tropez tans and plasticky fascinators affixed to Rapunzelesque hair extensions are swigging champagne from the bottle.
In an exclusive marquee on the banks of the Thames at Henley Regatta, the party started at 3pm. Within an hour it has erupted into a scene that looks like the Towie cast remaking Brideshead Revisited. I pass girls in nylon body-con dresses with tattoos visible, then I notice some men in white linen man-from-Del Monte suits with Stewards’ Enclosure badges, and I am reminded why we are here — for a 150-year-old boat race that was once the preserve of the upper classes, the height of decorum and the apex of summer’s smart society .
I have come to Henley today as part of an investigative safari into the English Season. For the uninitiated, the “Season” is the merry-go-round of social events that evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries as an aristocratic celebration of elitism, privilege and gentility. Today, it includes such events as the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Henley Royal Regatta, the Cartier Queen’s Cup polo and the Glyndebourne Festival.
It was pictures I’d seen of last year’s Ladies’ Day at Ascot — dubbed Chavscot — that first made me curious about what the Season had become. Looking through snaps of ladies in stripper heels and diamante-flecked dresses, drinking, snogging, cavorting and generally having unbridled fun made me wonder if this reflected a fundamental change in English society. Could it be that the Season was now accessible to everyone? And if so, was that proof that the class hierarchies that have divided and defined Britain for so long were finally disappearing?