Chance, fate, coincidence. Give it whatever name you care, sometimes the uncanny can offer a message that is not easy to ignore. I have just experienced one of these strangely curious moments of fortune. Whilst rummaging around the sinewy and intoxicating corners of my favourite local thrift store, Vintage Thrift, which is operated by the United Jewish Council of the East Side, I chanced upon a small, old, pin badge, in near mint condition. I handed over my $5 immediately, knowing exactly what I had ‘discovered’. This is (I refer you to the image, left, of said object) an entry tag to the spectator grandstand at the Epsom racecourse, on the day prior (I think, with the help of Google) to Derby Day itself in 1936. I’m amazed by my find for several reasons. Firstly, who would have thought that such an artefact would find its way to a charity shop in Manhattan? Presumably, the badge was kept as a souvenir by an American visitor to Epsom almost eighty years ago (although we’ll probably never know for sure)? Who would have thought that the object would have survived all of this time, too? Made of stiffened card, the object is the essence of horse racing ephemera and was not intended to be durable beyond the few days of a race meet. And, finally, what were the chances of finding a date so pitch perfect for my 1930s ‘Style Stakes’ project (Wed., 27th May 1936)? The Derby has a history dating back to 1780, so there is any number of decades to go at.
The badge itself offers a fair deal of information about the event at which it was worn. The date (wed, 27th May 1936), the price of admission to the grand stand area (£2.2.0), and, on the back, the issue number, 3736 (while contemporary news reports state that half a million people attended the headliner event, the Derby itself, in 1936). Printed text on the back of the cardboard badge also gives some fascinating insight on the rules and regulations that surrounded conditions of entry to Epsom: “Issued subject to the Rules of Racing. C. F. Oughton, Sec., Epsom GrandStand Association. This badge is issued on condition that it is worn so as to be distinctly seen by the officials. No money returned for lost or mislaid badges.”
As well as some of the practical and logistical details to do with race attendance, the badge also acts as a departure point for the ‘unpacking’ of the role of material culture and dress at horseraces. The foundations of much of the discipline of fashion theory are based around the idea of dress as a visual emblem or marker of identity. This badge is a marker of identity in its most literal, and also sociological, sense. Worn prominently (to be visible to the course stewards and personnel) on, say, a lapel, the badge becomes part of the recognised attire for a day at the races, and a symbol of the status and access that one either has bestowed or bought (for £2-and-something). Entry to the exclusive space of the grandstand was allowed and demarcated via a small, cardboard, marker. Clothing, the definition of which extends to accessories (as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog), was a key signifier of social and sporting belonging at the races. Sociologist, Erving Goffman would, then, suggest that these badges served as symbolic ‘tie-signs’ beyond the practical ‘you’ve paid your money’ purpose. Additionally, it’s apparent that this particular badge was invested with a mystical-type of meaning outside of its actual purpose. After the event at which it was distributed it had a further ‘life’ as a keepsake and trinket, holding immaterial memories of a European vacation (perhaps?), re-valued by its owner as having a ‘worth’ beyond its cheap material construction: a disposable artefact that was worth keeping.
Rather than all of this posturing, I should take the ‘hint’ supplied by my latest piece of cast-off treasure: that is, stop procrastinating and put pen to paper on my next writing project, an article on racing fashion for the Sport In History special edition on ‘kit’. But before so doing, I need to do the service here of supplying the winners and riders of the 1936 Derby. With 22 runners, the winner was the Aga Khan’s 100-8 outsider, a grey, named ‘Mahmoud’, that romped home with a three-length victory. For further delight and delectation, two evocative film snippets of Derby Day, 1936 can be viewed on the fabulous British Pathe archive website (5min film clip) and the British Paramount Newsreel site (3min film clip). And they’re off!