The History of Kentucky Derby Hats


The outrageous and stylish hats worn at the Kentucky Derby are a part of the race’s storied history, but how did it come to be that a horse race in Kentucky is one of the only places Americans still wear hats?

The history of the fabulous hats worn at the Derby is wound together with the history of the Kentucky Derby itself.


The Kentucky Derby began in 1875 after Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. visited similar races in France and England. A major difference between horse racing in Europe and the United States was the in the States ladies tended to stay away from the questionable atmosphere that often included drinking and gambling, whereas in Europe horse races were seen as a part of the social calendar and were appropriate for both men and women of a higher class.

Col. Clark decided that he wanted the Kentucky Derby to be more like the European horse races, and so Clark and his wife convinced the ladies of Louisville to participate in the event, bringing a refined, picnic atmosphere to the event.

Of course, fashion was an excellent way to attract a certain quality of lady, and so Clark and his wife emphasized the fashion element, requiring “full morning dress” for all in attendance.

Role of Fashion in the Kentucky Derby

At this point in time hats would have been worn to any event, by both ladies and gentlemen, but because of the original emphasis on fashion, the Kentucky Derby always had a place in the American fashion scene.

In the 1920’s ladies took to wearing formal suits to compliment their hats and these suits with morning hats were a mainstay until the late 1950’s. However, once the hat began to fade out of the everyday dress in America, people began to use an excuse to wear a hat, such as the Kentucky Derby, as a reason to go bigger, and more statement-making than ever before.

These hats became a way to gain attention and admiration while upholding the tradition of the Kentucky Derby as a fashion-forward event.

In the age of fashion journalism, the Kentucky Derby offers a rare opportunity for Americans to express themselves with fashionable headgear. According to the Kentucky Derby’s official website, the Royal Wedding of Price William and Kate Middleton sparked a rejuvenated interest in hats for younger Americans, making them a fun way to express their fashion sense.

Of course, Southerners have always had a somewhat more traditional fashion taste, so it makes sense that the Kentucky Derby hat would continue to be a hit with Southerners, young and old alike.

This year marks the 142nd year of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and we’re sure that both Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. and his wife would be happy to learn that people are still making the Kentucky Derby a fashion focused event.

They might not approve of some of the extremely wild hat designs that have been worn in the last 142 years, but we’re sure that fans of horse racing, fashion, and the Kentucky Derby will continue to carry this tradition of beautiful, silly, outrageous and huge Kentucky Derby hats on for years to come.



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