Phonetics professor Henry Higgins accepts the challenge of transforming Eliza Doolittle, a poor florist from East London, into a “lady.” After several successful classes, he takes her to Ascot, the racetrack where the most prestigious horseracing events in Great Britain are held. Unfortunately for Higgins, his student is not quite ready… We took a look back at this iconic scene from the movie My Fair Lady for episode four of our teatime series.
Quite strange behavior for an English teatime
Eliza was given strict instructions from her professor before her first public appearance as a woman of high society. Two subjects of conversation are allowed: the weather, and how the guests are feeling. Her arrival at the private box owned by Lady Higgins, the mother of the pretentious Henry, for five o’clock tea makes success seem inevitable. After all, Eliza’s pronunciation is perfect and her sophisticate manners exquisite. Things get a little more complicated when Eliza launches into a longwinded tirade peppered with lowbrow expressions and uncomfortable truths. Henry quickly glosses over the embarrassment by drawing everyone’s attention to the race. But the closer the horses get to the finish, the more excited Eliza becomes. The climax comes when she shouts “C’mon Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!” at the stallion she picked. What better way to conclude an already upside-down English teatime?
The Ascot races, the quintessence of British elegance
Higgins did not take our fair lady to Ascot by chance, however. Visitors to the racetrack in southeast England are obliged to respect a rigorous dress code and conduct themselves impeccably throughout the proceedings. This is particularly true at the Royal Ascot, a five-day event in June attended by the royal family for more than 300 years. Some say the Royal Ascot is the showcase for British elegance par excellence. Look no further than the extravagant headwear, tailcoats, and colorful dresses! It was not for nothing that professor Higgins chose this setting to test Eliza’s new identity. A place home to a collection of keen connoisseurs able to spot good taste a mile away.
In this scene in the movie, costume designer Cecil Beaton chose to feature bold, highly elegant outfits in black, white, and gray. The limited palette – exceedingly classical compared to the actual Ascot races – says a lot about the protagonists’ states of mind. There is no room for colorful fancies or the disordered abundance of a bouquet of flowers. Eliza’s hat is the only exception to the rule, and offers a clue as to how the situation will turn out… Just like its outfits My Fair Lady won’t quite fit into high-society’s mold.