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Known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the Kentucky Derby is the most popular horse race in the United States. While the horses may be the main attraction, the wild Kentucky Derby hats are definitely a close second. But how exactly did this tradition originate? The answer is as old as the Derby itself.

The Beginning of Kentucky Derby Hats

Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. got the idea for the Kentucky Derby in 1872 after watching Derby races in England and France. It took him a couple years to raise enough money, but by 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was set for a racetrack in Louisville.

The problem for Clark was attracting women to the races. Derby races weren’t a part of American society like they were in England and France, and all the gambling and drinking was likely to drive down female attendance.


Clark knew that the Derby would earn a seedy reputation if women weren’t attending, so he had his wife and other women in Louisville figure out a way to draw women to the race. Their idea was simple and ingenious – they would make the Kentucky Derby a fashion event in addition to a horse race.


Dress Code

They set a dress code that required both men and women to wear full morning dress, which meant women wore dresses with hats and gloves. This dress code progressed with time, and in the 1920s, women had the option of dresses or formal suits with a fashionable hat.

Fashion norms changed throughout the country in the following decades, and by the 1960s, hats were no longer considered everyday wear. Rules regarding fashion had also become more relaxed, and the Kentucky Derby followed suit by relaxing its own dress code.

The combination of people not wearing hats as often and the more flexible Kentucky Derby dress code led to an interesting change – people decided to use the race as an opportunity to show off with their headwear choices. Since men and women weren’t wearing hats much during their daily lives, they went all-out at the Kentucky Derby. Brims got bigger and color hues got bolder.

The difference between Kentucky Derby hats in the race’s first several decades of existence and the present-day is obvious when you look at photos from then and now. Hats used to be part of a man or woman’s outfit, an accessory that enhanced their style without drawing too much attention.


Now, the hat is the center of attention. Even the Kentucky Derby’s website recommends women wear simple dresses that don’t distract people from their hats.

While it’s not required, wearing a hat to the Kentucky Derby is considered good luck. For women, the most popular style of hat is the wide-brimmed, Southern Belle hat, often accentuated with flowers, bows, or ribbons.


There are also all kinds of gaudy, over-the-top hats with fun or humorous themes. The many unique hats have become one of the most talked-about parts of the Kentucky Derby. It probably isn’t what Clark had in mind when he created the race, but it certainly adds a fun new element.


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