Each Monday in April, Bourbon and Barns will work with the Kentucky Derby Museum to provide insight into the Derby's distinct history, character and charm. This week: Hats. Next week: Mint Juleps. Learn more about the Kentucky Derby Museum at www.derbymuseum.org.
This week's responses are provided by Chris Goodlett, Senior Curator of Collections at the museum, and Lindsay English, Communications Manager at the museum.
Bourbon and Barns: One of the most distinctive features of the Kentucky Derby is the style of dress of those in attendance. Any discussion of Kentucky Derby style must start, of course, with the hats. How did this tradition begin?
Chris Goodlett: Hats have been part of the Derby since the inaugural running in 1875. At that time, it was relatively common for men and women to look their best when coming to the track, which included wearing a hat. Hats as everyday wear continues until the 1960s when the practice begins to wane. However, hats at the Derby remained a fixture. The 1960s is also when you begin to see the rise of non-traditional hats, which also remain a fixture for the Kentucky Derby.
BB: Are the hats usually homemade, store-bought or custom-designed? How expensive can they be?
Lindsay English: You will see the entire gamut of styles in the crowd on Kentucky Derby Day, from the outrageous to haute couture. Homemade hats can be over-the-top with a crazy theme or made to compliment the perfect Derby dress. There are many sources for hats including local stores, like the Kentucky Derby Museum’s gift shop, a department store, a couture millinery shop or even online. The price tag on a Derby hat can be as low as $20 and then, the sky’s the limit! Custom hats can cost the most, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands.
BB: Do the hats change from year to year? How do the hats in recent years compare to the ones worn decades ago?
CG: Although Derby-day fashion has evolved through the decades, hats have long been the standard accessory throughout. In fact, hats specifically weren’t mentioned in literature pertaining to the Derby before the mid-1960’s because they were so commonplace. Not coincidentally, in 1965 Churchill Downs added a clubhouse known as Millionaires Row to the track. Churchill Downs Racetrack was becoming more spectacular to suit the Kentucky Derby crowds. By relative nature, the Kentucky Derby crowds were becoming more spectacular too. Today, you will be hard-pressed to find a story about the Kentucky Derby that doesn’t mention hats.
BB: I read that the fascinator, popularized by British Princess Kate Middleton, has been a recent trend in Kentucky Derby style. Have you seen more of these types of hats in recent years?
LE: The fascinator has become more popular in recent years. It can often be easier to manage wearing for a day at the races. Again, you will see a wide range in the crowd for Kentucky Derby Day.
BB: Women's attire at the Derby famously revolves around the hats, but what about the men? What are popular styles of dress for men in attendance?
LE: An increasing number of men are wearing hats to the Derby, whether it’s a straw fedora or a seersucker cap. Many men will wear pastel or lighter colored suits with colorful bow-ties, complete with cufflinks and pocket squares. Quite often you’ll see men dress in suits with a crazy pattern or color to them. In different areas of the racetrack you’ll see men dressed to the nines for Millionaires Row or decked out for a day of revelry in the infield.
BB: How important is style to the overall Kentucky Derby experience?
LE: From hats and fascinators, to bow-ties and seersucker suits, style is integral to the Kentucky Derby experience. Since it began 143 years ago, attendees donned their best at the racetrack, including wearing a hat. Although the tradition has evolved and the style in some cases has become less formal and more crazy, the questions of “what are you wearing to Derby?” and “do you match the hat to the dress or the dress to the hat?” remain. When you are there on Derby day, the ambience and people-watching can’t be beat!