Arts Appeal

Blog about Art and Events in Chicagoland

The History of Kentucky Derby Hats

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One of the most interesting features of the Kentucky Derby is the astounding hats that regularly show up at the event every year. In fact, hats are quite normal here; one of the few places ladies still choose to wear elaborate headgear.


For an event that centers around a horse race, this could be a puzzling tradition from the beginning. How did the tradition of hats get started in the first place?

From the very beginning, fashion has been an important part of the Derby. In the beginning, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr wanted to start a high-profile horse race after seeing many in his travels abroad. However, horse racing in America had always been regarded as somewhat on the seedy side of social events. In order to change that conception, the colonel and his wife decided to showcase it as a fashion event.

black kentucky derby hat

Colonel Lewis

To bring this aspect out to its fullness, they implemented a dress code of ‘full morning dress’ for men and women. Among other things, this code required the ladies to wear hats and gloves. Colonel Lewis and his wife personally invited the ladies of Louisville to make this event a success.

And it was a an amazing success. The first race quickly led the way both to making the racetrack open to the ladies of the United States and to a surge of business for hatmakers. Everyone bought hats, from the middle classes’ off-the-rack hats to the custom-made affairs of the wealthy ladies.

News Coverage of the Hats

As the years went by, lists of notable people who attended the Kentucky Derby appeared in the papers, along with extensive coverage on their clothing and the women’s Derby hats. Soon the Kentucky Derby became a fashion event equal to a ball and was something not to be missed if one could possibly help it.

As fashions changed throughout the years, the hats remained firmly in the place of honor. However, the showstopping hats of today did not arrive on the scene until around the 1960s. With the wave of new fashion hitting the streets, the hats became bigger and better than ever.

TV Footage

The presence of television gave the ladies of the race added incentives to stand out among the throng of people. Since the fashions were more loosely governed than in the past, there was ample room for imagination and size to take over the scene.

red kentucky derby hat

Even though the importance of the Derby hat lessened during the 1970s and 80s, the 90s and onward saw the hats coming back. As can be seen from the videos and images of today, almost anything goes on the hats today. Custom hats are still popular, with their season peaking in April. They carry a hefty price tag as well.

Kentucky Derby Hat Options

Some people make their own or buy a pre-made hat and add their own embellishments to suit their fancy. However they are made, each hat reflect its owner’s personality and fashion tastes, something that is as long-standing as the race itself.

After all, if it hadn’t been for the hats at the very beginning, the Kentucky Derby may not have been such a major event as it is today.