Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the founder of the Kentucky Derby — click to read my post on Austen Authors for more on thoroughbred horse racing — modeled the race after European-style racing events like the Royal Ascot and Derby at Epsom Downs. In the past, and still to this day, the English races mandated formal dress for men and women, including hats. When the Kentucky Derby began in 1875, American women, like their cousins across the pond, wore their finest garments to the races. Of course, dressing properly in the latest fashion was typical in those days, especially for the upper classes who attended the exclusive thoroughbred races. And, until very recent decades, hats were an accoutrement as required as a pair of shoes!
Fashion in America has changed, with headwear practically unheard of in a casual setting and rare for formal attire. Women wearing hats is slightly more common in the more traditional South, and no where is this carryover as prevalent than at the Kentucky Derby!
Derby goers take the custom to an entirely new level. The majority are ornate, colorful, exquisitely crafted, classy if ostentatious, and very BIG. Some are moderately sized and decorated, but whatever the size, typically wearers choose a hat to compliment their garments and with beauty in mind. Not all, however! There are an increasing number of Derby attendees who swing toward the ridiculous or bizarre.
On Google and Pinterest there are hundreds of examples of Derby hats. Limiting myself was very difficult! Enjoy the collage below, and vote on your favorite “beautiful Derby hat” and the “most ridiculous” sample.