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The women who take fashion to the field, wherever it may be

Date

Melissa Kent

Jacqueline Russo in her dressing room at home.

Jacqueline Russo in her dressing room at home. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

LIKE a brilliant butterfly, on certain mornings in spring Jacqueline Russo emerges from her house with immaculate hair, bottle-bronzed limbs and a painted smile.

Her outfits, always dazzling from high-reaching headpiece to teetering toe, are never the same one weekend to the next. Guarding against squashed hats and wrinkled skirts, she carefully arranges herself in her car and drives countless miles to try her luck in the Fashions on the Field competitions around the state.

Ms Russo, 36, is one of a growing army of women who contest the amateur fashion stakes. By the end of November, she will have vied for glory at Cranbourne, Caulfield, Geelong and Bendigo, as well as Derby Day, the Cup and the big one - Oaks Day at Flemington.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

''I've won four or five of the country ones, but Flemington is the Holy Grail,'' she says. ''It's so hard to win there. Top 10 is the best I've done.

''I've always entered Fashions on the Field on and off, but then when I won at the Geelong Cup two years ago I really started to get into it. As soon as you win something, you just want to win another one and I suppose it is like an addiction.

''I don't play any kind of sport but I do this instead. I still get a little nervous, especially at the big ones like Caulfield and Flemington, and you get that thrill of competing.''

Over the years, Ms Russo, a personal assistant from Macedon, has won holidays, jewellery, clothing vouchers and thousands of dollars in cash. But the thrill is not so much about winning as planning each outfit.

Preparations start in January when she begins stockpiling her arsenal. Sourcing pieces mostly online, her spare room is a trove of vintage finds, designer labels, heels, handbags and elaborate headwear. Each outfit takes into account new trends, judges' predilections and, of course, the weather.

It's a year-long obsession, not to mention an expensive one: she has 40 hats and 20 pairs of shoes on the go this season. All up, she estimates the bill will top $10,000.

''I know, it's horrible isn't it?'' she says with a laugh. ''By the time you get to October and you tally it all up, it's quite expensive. Last year I bought 13 pieces from the one milliner and I only got to wear about four or five, so I'm just very compulsive when it comes to buying hats.''

Her commitment paid off on Wednesday at the Geelong Cup, when her striking monochrome headpiece by local milliner Rebecca Share won best hat from a field of 100 entrants.

Another serial entrant, education student Elly Dillon, 22, skipped lectures to compete in a 1950s- inspired outfit made by her mother. She picked up the runner-up prize of Charles Rose jewellery worth $2000.

Law clerk Melaine Morgan, 27, was trying to repeat last year's win but ended up third in her peach ASOS dress and made-to-match Terri Oswald headpiece. She had her eye on a trip to Bali, but won one to Lorne instead.

The competition can sometimes get heated. Feathers can get ruffled when the winner is a judge's mate or is perceived to be a ''professional''.

''There's always a lot of talk about the judges liking certain girls because they know them or they're wearing something that happens to be designed by them,'' Russo admits. ''You're always going to get those competitive dirty looks and whispers … but as a general rule most people are supportive and friendly.

''We've got a big group who all go together and we help each other out if anyone needs shoes or handbags.''

Next week, many of these amateur glamazons will be at Flemington vying for a slice of the $400,000 prize pool.

Russo will be there, though she is yet to decide on an outfit. Her husband, she says, may choose it for her.

''He's starting to become a bit of an expert,'' she says with a laugh.

■mkent@theage.com.au

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