Hats and Fashions of the Kentucky Derby

BlogHer Original Post

When it comes to fashion at the Kentucky Derby, there is no such thing as 'over the top' although classic styles usually lead. Elaborate chapeaus, bright spring silks, seersuckers suits, pastel linens, classic bow ties (no clip-ons), race-themed accessories, feathers, flowers and fancy shoes. It's all part of the panoramic people display unique to the Derby. As for the hats? Women don't merely wear them, they flaunt them ...and with good reason. (See my Derby hat and fashion photos here.)

The Derby's founding father, Colonel M. Lewis Clark, Jr., wanted to recreate an elegant atmosphere, a semblance of refined European horse racing right here on American soil. Col. Clark set a sartorial tone that was luxurious but relaxed, classy but not stuffy. In the late 19th and early 20th century, ladies and gents of means wore the latest spring fashions on Derby Day and the tradition continues. NASCAR it isn't.

"The seats in the grandstand were filled with gaily dressed women and men. The mass of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, all the colors of the rainbow, blending into one harmonious whole was as beautiful a sight as His Eminence in the lead."

--from a 1901 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal covering the Kentucky Derby

While Derby fashions have evolved throughout the years - from bustles to parasols to gloves - hats have become a mainstay. In the 30s and 40s, formal dress suits for women seemed to surpass dresses. In the 50s, Derby fashions matched the rest of the country - fitted bodice dresses with billowing petticoats along with gloves and hat. The turbulent 60s fittingly brought more outlandish fashion choices to the Derby; the hats got bigger and louder - high society was loosening up a bit. From there, the hats stayed on ... and grew.

"From the 1990s to today, the dress at the Derby is slowly replacing the suit, especially with younger women. While gloves are out of fashion, a hat never is, and they tend to get wilder and more expensive every year."

--Katherine Veitschegger, Curator of Collections, Kentucky Derby Museum

I can personally attest to the sheer size of these hats. There were a few awkward elevator moments that involved some careful maneuvering of lady lids. Social greetings - air kisses and hugs - presented more than a few spatial challenges and some settled for polite handshakes. Nobody got sunburned, that's for sure.

I asked the ladies where they acquired their hats and many had been purchased from a specific designer, often custom made to match their ensemble. I met two young women on the plane home that had purchased two quintessential Derby hats (too big for hat boxes) in Louisville for $300 each - most likely, never to be worn again.

Some hats were purchased at auctions or boutiques, some on Craigslist but I met several women who had made their own. One Derby regular simply got tired of telling designers what she wanted and finally went ahead and did it herself. Her black straw hat with bright pink feathers and flowers turned out beautifully.

In fact, the most common color combos I saw this year were pink/green and pink/black though I saw lots of blue and aqua too. Still, the amount of black was unexpected and I didn't really care for it in this unique springtime context.

There were also elaborate headpieces called fascinators, I kid you not, and they are definitely fascinating to behold. Most sprout colorful feathers and hover over a lady's head without the weight of a full brim. There were also a number of feathered headbands and flowered headpieces - so delicate and feminine. I spotted butterfly accents, peacock and ostrich feathers and a few veils too.

I'd faced my own quandary in this department pre-Derby. Me being of the no-day-job status, I couldn't afford to go all out in the hat department. Also, a wide brim would get in the way of my camera lens, which was more important than anything else.

In the end, I had my mother ship one of my old bridesmaid hats that had been decorating her living room for a decade. I took it to a local milliner, Erin Saboe of Go-Go Chapeaux here in Denver, and she gave it a much-needed makeover for just $25. I then dug up an old hat box out of storage and was good to go. I wasn't there to make any fashion statements, just to blend in a bit while documenting.

Oh, and the shoes! There were so many ladies balanced on spike heels, my feet hurt just looking at them. Heels in every color and a lot of metallic too. The highest heels I saw were on Kim Kardashian - a true foot soldier of fashion, that's for sure. Knowing I would be running around all over the place, I opted for an old pair of simple beige heels. In an elevator, a woman said to me, "Oh yeah, I remember when we all wore those shoes in the 70s." I'm still trying to figure out if I'd been insulted or if I'd simply made her nostalgic. Probably both.

Other than maybe Burning Man, I have never seen so much group participation in a single event. Of the over 153,000 in attendance, there were maybe 10,000 or less who did not dress up for the occasion. (Mind you, I never made it to the infield - more a drunken frat party there, I'm told.) Nearly everyone I saw had put considerable thought and effort into their outfit and the compliments were flying everywhere:

"Darling, you look gorgeous!"

"I had no idea you looked so good in pink!"

"Where on Earth did you get those shoes? They are divine!"

Who would've guessed that a horse race would bring out so much celebration of Us?

To intensify the already colorful scene, attendees of the Kentucky Oaks - the Friday race known as the "Lilies for the Fillies", more of a local affair than the Derby - had been asked to 'Pink Out' in honor of breast cancer awareness and research. (Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Kentucky Cancer Center's Horse & Hope had partnered to make this happen.) As a result, two out of three people were wearing some shade of pink on Friday - gorgeous.

"As part of our Pink Out, we are encouraging everyone who attends the Oaks to incorporate pink into their apparel to demonstrate solidarity and support for the fight against breast cancer... For every Oaks attendee, Churchill Downs will be donating $1 to research for a minimum donation of $100,000."

--Kentucky Oaks flyer accommodating the ticket

Now, I expected high fashion on the women but the men? ZZ Top was dead right and I'm especially crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. They were EVERYWHERE, many of them in seersucker, linen, pinstripe or crazy-ass plaids. The suits, the hats, the racing-themed ties and the stylin' shoes - I thought my eyeballs would explode from sensory joy. And the number one male accessory? Cigars. Big, fat phallic ones. As the daughter of a cigar smoker, I adore the smell ... and mixed with all the mint from the juleps, it made for an intoxicating aroma.

"It's the only day of the year when my wife encourages me to smoke cigars, drink and gamble. The rest of the year - cigars are definitely not allowed. This morning I got dressed and she said, 'You've got your cigars for the day, right?' It's just bizarre."

--Sharp-Dressed Man at the Derby


Due to the state of the nation and current economic climate, I half-expected a more downplayed, somber Derby. Maybe folks - their life savings shrunk, house de-valued, job gone - might stay home or at least dress down. This was not the case. Race fans celebrated in style and exuberance as if recent headlines were pure fiction. (I never heard the term 'Swine Flu' even once.)

It's comforting to know that no matter what is going on out there, the first Saturday in May will forever be reserved for race party and community fashion parade that is the Kentucky Derby ... 135 years and counting.  


Many, many blogs showing off the hats and such at the Derby. A sampling:

Delaney Gates

Equine Ink

Postcards and Coasters: Mementos and Tales of a Flight Attendant - such a great little blog!


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