Why the Kentucky Derby is a 145-year-old celebration of hats

America's longest running sports event comes with a distinctive sartorial tradition.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg/Getty
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A racing fan wears a Derby hat at Churchill Downs on the morning of the 141st Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday, May 2, 2015. The event featured twenty horses with the winner, American Pharoah, receiving a gold trophy and a $1.24 million payday.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg/Getty

Although horses may be the stars of the Kentucky Derby, hats take center stage at the 144-year old horse race in the American heartland.

In Kentucky, hats—the wilder the better—are central to the annual spring ritual, the “run for the roses.” On the first Saturday of May, horse-racing fans gather at Churchill Downs to watch the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

The racetrack, located in Louisville, Kentucky, was founded by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark—who along with Meriwether Lewis explored the western portion of the U.S. in what is known as the Lewis and Clark expedition—after he toured prim, royal tracks while on a trip throughout Europe. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, making the race the longest continuously-held sporting event in American history. (Read how speedy horses only evolved recently.)

The Kentucky Derby’s pageantry—from the broad hats to the tailored suits—is central to the race by design. Clark and his wife Mary, a socialite, promoted the Derby as a well-to-do affair. It was “a great hoity-toity event for the rich and famous to come and mingle and see each other in their finest,” says Jessica Whitehead, a collections manager at the Kentucky Derby Museum, a Louisville-based organization dedicated to the history of the race.

Ladies’ fashion was never overlooked. At the turn of the century, local newspapers would print an alphabetical list of who wore what to the Derby—detailing which fabrics and colors were trending.

Hats were a staple of every fashionable outfit in the region until the 1960s, so for the first century they weren’t a notable accessory. As hats faded from the norm they were still worn to special occasions like the Derby. Over time, they became associated with the race as a tradition for “tradition’s sake,” theorizes Whitehead. (Discover the seven foods to eat on Derby day.)

The audacious hats of today’s races emerged as the race became televised, according to Derby historians. To stand out from the crowd, women began wearing louder and more extravagant hats. Today, remarkable hats are still featured on television stations across the country.

Women find inspiration for Derby hats from all over the world, from Australia’s racing tracks to the Royal family and their notable, if sometimes audacious, hats.

Customers bring in photos from royal weddings requesting hats similar to those worn by Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, says Rachel Bell, a co-owner of the specialty hat shop in Louisville, Kentucky, The Hat Girls. She says that the royals are responsible for the majority of their sales shifting from hats to fascinators, headpieces that are “fastened” to the head via comb, clip, or headband.

“When you see two princesses that everyone idolizes and you see them wearing fascinators, they want to wear them too,” says Bell.

While horses were only domesticated 6,000 years ago, humans have been donning hats for at least 27,000 years. From function to fashion, hats have been worn for centuries for nearly every occasion. During bitter winters, shepherds in Turkmenistan turned to shaggy telpek hats to stay warm. In Brittany, France ladies wore lacey caps as a nod to the region’s history of lace artistry.

Queen Elizabeth, who is estimated to have worn more than 5,000 hats since being crowned in 1952, also has an established following for her race-day headwear. The Queen, who owns and breeds horses herself, opens the Royal Ascot races in Berkshire, England. Each year, attendees bet on what color hat the Queen will wear on opening day. Last year blue was favored, five to two.

When the Queen attended the Derby in 2007, she wore a fresh green and coral hat.

“The derby is all about the hats—the horses are second,” says Bell.