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A Guide to the Kentucky Derby Hats Tradition

Every year the Kentucky Derby is a fabulous occasion filled with funny horse names, mint juleps, an exciting race, and, perhaps most importantly, incredible headgear. From southern classics to wacky creativity, hats at Derby come in every style, shape, and color under the sun (and sometimes under a light spring drizzle). If the Kentucky Derby is on your Bucket List, your hat can make or break the trip. Here is everything you need to know about the Kentucky Derby hats tradition so that you can bring the appropriate headgear to witness the most exciting two minutes in sports.


How did the Kentucky Derby hats tradition get started?

Kentucky Derby founder Meriwether Lewis Clark visited London and Paris in 1872 and witnessed two of Europe’s longest-running derbies. Impressed by the high-society that attended these events, Clark returned to America with the vision of revamping America’s race tracks. Where horse races in the States were at the time typically seen as brutish, low-class forms of entertainment (like gambling and boxing), Clark wanted to attract Louisville’s wealthiest residents to the racetracks. He sought to transform the reputation of the tracks into a place of fashion, and did this by asking all his female friends to dress their best and load up into his wagon as he drove around town telling people they were off to have a picnic at the racetrack. Before long, the racetrack was the place to see and be seen, and everyone would dress their best to attend. Hats featured heavily in the fashion of the time, and have persisted since.

Kentucky Derby Hats Ideas

Race-goers in 1926. Source.


How has the Kentucky Derby hats tradition evolved over time?

Today Derby is associated with huge and flamboyant hats, and while the origins of this tradition date back to the founding of the race, this development towards the loud and gargantuan is relatively recent. It wasn’t until about the 1960s that Derby spectators started to wear hats that were knowingly over-the-top or ridiculous. This was in part due to the relaxation of social norms, and also due to the advent of live television – all of a sudden women had a lot more reason to try to stand out in the crowds. Fashion historians also credit the iconic hats of First Lady Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn (in her role in My Fair Lady) as inspiration for many Derby hats of the time.

Kentucky Derby Hat Ideas

Fabulous hats on Derby Goers in the 60s. Source.

After the ’60s, these gargantuan hats weren’t quite so common and many race-goers would simply skip out on this tradition. The hats stayed a fixture of the races for sure, but they weren’t so compulsory for several decades. But with the prominence of hats at the royal wedding of Prince Edward and Kate Middleton in 2011, all of a sudden statement hats made a huge comeback at the Kentucky Derby. More recently, gimmicky hats have started to become prominent at the Derby as well. Expect to see spectators with all sorts of toys and colorful objects attached to their heads!

Some of the most-photographed hats of the Royal Wedding in 2011. When it comes to hats, Derby goers have been taking queues from the Brits since the 1870s. Source.


How do Kentucky Derby hat styles differ for men and women? 

Though Kentucky Derby hats have certainly become more eccentric over the years, many of the classic styles persist. Among women, sun hats and fascinators are two of the go-to styles. For men, straw boaters and fedoras are the most popular of the classic looks.

Traditional hats for Men at the Kentucky Derby. Source.


Kentucky Derby hats ideas: Where to begin? 

When it comes to acquiring a Kentucky Derby hat, there are lots of places you can start. Celebrities will often commission a designer for a special, unique look. Others head to vintage clothing stores and garage sale to find a one-of-a-kind piece of history. Others still may prefer to head to a local hat shop where they can invest in quality hat that they can wear time and time again. In Louisville and other nearby areas, there are also shops that specialize in Derby hats, and they are sure to stay up to date on the latest trends in racing fashion.


How to Make your own Kentucky Derby Hat

If you have an old helmet or sun hat laying around, perhaps you want to try your hand at making your own Kentucky Derby hat. As it has become more acceptable to look intentionally ridiculous when attending Derby, the pressure is off to design anything couture. If you want to stay classic, attach ribbons, flowers, feathers, or other common decorative items in a way that is attractive to you. If you want to make a silly hat, pile them on! And there’s no reason to stop at common craft materials – every year there are at least a few homemade hats that feature elaborate panoramas.

How to Make your own Kentucky Derby Hat.

Anything can be a hat at Derby. Source.


How should the rest of your Derby outfit look?

The Southern Belle and Gentleman looks prevail at Derby. Most attendees will be dressed in their Southern Sunday finest, so don’t come wearing athletic or leisure clothes. Expect to see linen suits, conservative but flowy dresses, and lots of big sunglasses. Many women coordinate their shoes and handbags with their hats, and many men go sockless with their horse bit loafers.


Kentucky Derby Fashion

Ben Rhodes and Ann Norris Rhodes attend the 143rd Kentucky Derby. Source.

Are there any hat faux pas at Derby?

From ultra-chic to vintage to titanic to ridiculous, anything goes as far as hats at the Kentucky Derby. The only faux pas you can make is not to wear one!


We had a fabulous time at the 2017 Kentucky Derby and can’t wait to go again in 2018! For an unforgettable Derby experience, inquire about our Derby Travel Packages today.

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