Horse Races And Tracks

History of the Kentucky Derby Hat

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The Kentucky Derby, featured in the 2010 film “Secretariat”, is held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.  This one-and-a-quarter-mile race for three-year old Thoroughbred horses – the first of “The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing”, followed by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes – lasts just two minutes. However, it’s much more than a short, heart-pumping race.

On the day of this “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, glorious traditions play out, making this “Run for the Roses,” capping the two-week long Kentucky Derby Festival, one of America’s most upper-crust and fun traditions.

As the horses are paraded before the grandstands, the University of Louisville Marching Band plays Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”.

Watching from the stands are beautiful, elegant, sophisticated and sassy women bedecked with millinery delights – otherwise known as the “Kentucky Derby hat”.  The fashion display is particularly striking in “Millionaire’s Row”, the expensive box seats for the rich, famous and powerful, where they sip the traditional drink, The Mint Julep, an iced drink consisting of bourbon, mint and sugar syrup. They also enjoy such traditional food as burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables – all the while relishing lovely women regaled with splendidly lavish hats.

Since its beginning in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has ranked as one of spring’s main hat fashion events. Early on, wearing a hat was considered a mere necessity for men and women during such special occasions and outdoor events; in fact, it was considered not just a fashion faux pas, but scandalous for a woman to come hatless.

As the race grew in popularity, Derby attendee started to embellish their hats with flamboyant add-ons, e.g., ribbons, feathers, and floral arrangements, making these fancy hats the epitome of good taste, and the main feature of a woman’s attire, paired with a relatively spare matching cocktail dress. Hats made by Betmar, Plaza Suite and Helen Kaminski abound in “Millionaire’s Row”. In contrast, in-field spectators forgo wide brim Derby hats, opting instead for simpler, even sarcastic styles.  Men also accessorize with hats, though in more low-key style, usually donning the traditional fedora.

Yet, for all its glamour and sophistication, the Kentucky Derby hat has a practical side – the wider tightly-woven brim providing protection for face, neck and shoulders from the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. 

Complementing these beautiful, often rose-bedecked hats is the luxurious blanket of 554 red roses awarded to the Kentucky Derby winner each year – a tradition born in 1883, when New York socialite E. Berry Wall lavished ladies at a post-Derby party with roses.  Observing this was Churchill Downs’ founder and president, Col. M. Lewis Clark, who then replicated it at the race. 

These glorious interweaving traditions – including the adored Kentucky Derby hat – form a marvelous tapestry, helping ensure Thoroughbred racing’s “Triple Crown” begins in grand style.

More about this author: Rose-Marie Fitzgerald

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