Did you ever wonder why we wear elaborate hats to the Kentucky Derby? Well, the history of the Kentucky Derby goes back to the Derby Stakes in Britain, known here in the States as the Epsom Derby. The Epsom Derby was first run in 1780 and is the highest-purse horse race in Britain.
In 1873, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. visited Europe, taking in the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. He returned home to Louisville and organized the race now known as the Kentucky Derby, looking toward these races for inspiration for track design, race length and other details. When the Kentucky Derby began in 1875, Kentucky ladies wore their finest to the races, just as their British counterparts did. Of course, in those days, finery included a chapeau, and the tradition stuck.
These days, a Derby Hat is the first thing most ladies look for when they make place for the big race. Kate Welsh, co-owner of The Hat Girls, the Official Hat Designers of the Kentucky Derby Festival, says "Sixty percent of our business is custom work, which wasn’t in our original business plan. We find that, typically, a lady wants to pick out her clothes around the hat. Others want a custom design made from dresses they’ve already picked out."
Of course, there's a fine line between a dramatic hat and one that's too comfortable for race day wear. Kate Welsh says "We’re very honest with customers about what works for them. People try the hats on, and they don’t always realize that an adjustable hat brim only helps them so much. As designers, we try to limit how many feathers or sequins we add to the hat so thatit’s not sagging down into the customer’s face."
Rachel Bell, Ms. Welsh's Hat Girls partner, notes that their designs do strike a balance between practicality and flair. "But, at the same time, the hat usually is the focal point of the outfit."
Whether your preferred look is a practical fascinator or a show-stopping chapeau, you can thank the Derby's English roots -- and especially Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr's trip to Epsom -- for the tradition of Kentucky Derby Hats.