Stay onside

    20 June 2015

    The Season — Wimbledon, Ascot, Henley etc — is a social construct arranged largely around sporting fixtures. This makes it peculiarly fraught for women. What do we wear? Say? What is the appropriate facial expression for each sport? Do we remove our stilettos to stomp in the divots at polo? Dare we ask the score?

    Each sport has its language and grammar as well as uniform and codes of behaviour. Last summer, I was in a box at Lord’s and introduced Piers Morgan to the US ambassador and stood between them, my head swivelling from side to side as if watching men’s singles, while Piers lectured the ambo on Americans’ fondness for firearms. Finally Matthew Barzun sighed and said, ‘You Brits don’t get our gun laws and we Yanks,’ he gestured to the hallowed turf, across which a ball was dribbling out to silly point, ‘don’t get your cricket.’

    Just as it’s harder for a woman to speak sport like a man, it’s also harder somehow to be an acceptable female spectator, even if — unlike Barzun — you’re English and went to a boys’ prep school.

    At my prep school there weren’t enough girls (there were two of us) so I joined the boys’ sides for games, arriving at some rival prep for away matches in my rugger shorts or cricket whites and, as Englishmen like to say of their childhood beatings, it never did me any harm.

    It has not been possible in quite the same way to play organised team sports with large numbers of the opposite sex every weekday and every Saturday afternoon as an adult, which has been a sadness.

    But even I can spend hours as a fixture looms, wondering what to wear for a rugby international, even though there’s an inviolable dress code of clumpy chestnut Dubarry boots and Barbour (for both sexes). I’ve spent dog-years fretting about the right frock to wear at Wimbledon, and wondering whether it’s acceptable to scream on the touchline when my children play team games. (Parents have been banned from cheering on Sundays by the Rugby Football Union, and the Football Association has started offering courses to parents caught swearing during children’s football matches.)

    And then there’s the not insignificant matter of looking the part. Just as fashion has its front row, so do most sporting events now, and photos taken at gala occasions reveal the important difference between the casual spectator and the fanatic supporter, the civilian and the celebrity.

    It is often assumed that women don’t know anything about sport and use the game as a see-and-be-seen opportunity (on this basis, Victoria Beckham, who turned up to Wimbledon in a negligée and looked bored, is a classic spectator; whereas Pippa Middleton, who plays in the first pair at Queen’s, is an echt fan).

    Kim Sears is definitely in the latter camp, as we saw in the Australian Open semi-final earlier this year. Andy Murray was trying to break his opponent Tomas Berdych in the third set and little Kim let fly with a potty-mouthed tirade. Which was quite a surprise. After all, up till now, Kim had been known for her swishy, Pantene advertisement hair and her pet portraits.

    Across the Atlantic, there’s no equivalent of the sporting ‘season’, so it’s at basketball and football games that pop stars and Hollywood and fashion collide: at these floodlit photo-ops where folks like Beyoncé and Jay Z, Rihanna, the Olsen Twins and Olivia Wilde come in stacked hi-tops to show off their latest squeezes. ‘Basketball is always fun, like any sport when your team is winning,’ says the stylist and make-up artist Gucci Westman. ‘The music and entertainment, beers and peanuts — it’s all a good adrenaline rush.’

    At these games you can tell the difference between a real fan and a celebrity instantly. The fan is glued to the ball, but the celebrity doesn’t know, or appear to care, who’s winning. So as a woman, the trick is to walk a fine line — be not so much ditsy Wag as dignified and committed, especially in the Royal Box.

    ‘I think my mother always looked wonderful,’ says Lady Helen Taylor (her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, are Wimbledon’s longest-serving royals), ‘but she did worry about her dress creasing.’ Her style guide for the Royal Box and other high-octane sporting occasions?

    ‘No bare arms, because of bingo wings when you clap, and no deep V-necks, as you show too much flesh when you lean forward.’

    Basically, for all summer sports, so long as you remember the places where women are best seen but not heard (the boxes) and where they’re not allowed at all (the Long Room at Lord’s), and roughly look the part, you’re fine.

    As for rugby and football — these are sport’s hardship postings (apart from the hospitality suites at the grounds, of course). ‘There’s no see-and-be-seen about rugby,’ agrees Catherine Faulks, whose son Archie played rugby for England as a schoolboy, and who spent every winter weekend of his adolescence on the muddy touchline or in the stands.

    ‘All the women I know who go to watch go because they love the game and they’re keen. It’s not flashy. You can’t show off your outfit, because you’re in a crowd of 80,000 people and wearing five layers.’ The only competition when it comes to rugby, in fact, is who brings out the fanciest lunch and the runniest Scotch eggs from Harrods Food Hall in the back of the Range Rover in the car park.

    I had to check with a higher authority to establish whether I get it wrong at the touchline as well as at Wimbledon. I was worried that screaming ‘Come on Wellington!’ and shouting ‘BOOOM!’ when the school scores was all wrong. ‘Cheer the name and not the school and don’t be loud and try and grab all the attention,’ my son confirmed by text.

    So this is my strong advice as we dive into a long, hot, high-heeled summer of sport. Don’t worry about forgetting the offside rule. Like everything else, including sex, being the perfect spectator is 90 per cent enthusiasm and only 10 per cent expertise. Remember that — and your thermals — and you’ll get away with anything.