The image of the Kentucky Derby is inexorably tied to hats. From it’s inception in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has been presented as a very special event, inspired by British horse racing, and every effort has been made since then to model the event after our continental, hat-wearing, horse racing, cousins. In many ways, the tradition of wearing hats to the Kentucky Derby has survived better than most hat wearing traditions in the United States, with attendees putting tremendous time and effort into their selection.
Founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who modeled the race after the already established horse racing tradition on the continent of Europe, the Kentucky Derby has run continuously every year since it began. Invariably, it runs on the second weekend of May, on and one and one quarter mile race track in Louisville, Kentucky. Just as invariable is what surrounds the track.
A sea of pastel and floral fills the stands, each outfit vying for attention with the next. Men will typically wear more bold clothing, because while they may, and usually do, wear hats, this is not the focus of the outfit. For women, fantastical hats top simple outfits because the goal is to never take from the hat. Many women plan their outfits months or a year in advance. Our advice? Pick your hat first, then plan the outfit around it. There are many lovely dresses, but there might only be one perfect hat for you, and when in doubt, go big or go home.
This entire tradition was drawn from two places. The first, of course, was the sense of aristocracy surrounding the British horse races, where we get the concept of Morning Dress, and also where the wide brimmed hat began to be worn for a dress occasion. The second is the American South, where the concept of the southern belle is as close to the heart as most anything else. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. wanted to bring the concept or Southern and British aristocracy together in the Kentucky Derby, and we would say he pulled it off superbly.
Mr. Clark’s goal was to bring the opulence of European horse racing to America. The gentility and pacing of the event was to be just as much a part of the race as the horse racing itself, and this continues to be a large element of the event even to this day. The simple dress and the extravagance of the hats was very much the style of the day in Europe c. 1875, and it is from this inspiration that we continue to draw from for the esthetics of the Kentucky Derby.
So, where are we now? Women’s fashion tends not to change very much in the Kentucky Derby, because the focus tends to be on the classic elements of the style. The wide-brimmed and more fantastical hats will be further from the racetrack itself, while as you move towards the race track, and space becomes more of a premium, you will start to see more fascinators and pillbox hats. From the ‘50s onwards, it became not unusual to see women in suits at the Kentucky Derby, even when it might have been less common elsewhere.
As an aside, our own beloved partner in hats, Christin A. Moore, was of course the featured milliner for the 144th Kentucky derby, the fact of which we are immensely proud of. Christine A. Moore is a spectacular milliner in her own right, and aside from her regular line, which is always superb, she also designs custom hats for many attending dignitaries and celebrities attending the races.
Since 1875, the Kentucky Derby has been very much a hat event, and it’s our pleasure to become part of that tradition. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.’s goal was to bring the elegance, the class, and the opulence, of the European horse race to America, and he succeeded, but without disrupting the pure American-ness of the event. Hats will always be part of the Kentucky Derby as longs as there are horses to run on the track, and as long as elegance and gentility is not lost to us.