Most events with a history that can be traced back over a century tend to be associated with a wide variety of traditions, and the Kentucky Derby is certainly no exception.
The race has been held on an annual basis at Churchill Downs for close to 150 years, and anyone who flocks to Louisville to witness the spectacle can expect to take part in a number of the pastimes that define it.
That includes drinking one (or a few) of the 120,000 mint juleps that are served up at the Kentucky Derby each year, singing along to the rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” that precedes “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” and seeing the garland of flowers get presented to the winner of the race known as “The Run for the Roses.”
The vast majority of people who attend the Kentucky Derby aren’t heading to racetracks every weekend, and you could argue the eagerly anticipated sporting event is just as big of a social event for many of the spectators.
I’d go as far as to suggest you could call the Kentucky Derby the horse racing equivalent of Easter Sunday thanks to the lavish and extravagant outfits most of the people at Churchill Downs don on the big day—including many that are literally capped off by the ubiquitous hats that are inextricably linked with the gathering.
If you’re wondering why that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place.
Why are hats a major tradition at the Kentucky Derby?
The origins of the Kentucky Derby are rooted in wealth; the race and the venue where it’s hosted were both the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., who inherited a great deal of money and was a member of Louisville’s high society (at least before he took his life after losing his fortune in a stock market collapse).
That’s partially the reason the race is known as “The Run for the Roses,” as Clark decided to start handing out flowers to the winner after witnessing an eccentric New York socialite present a bouquet to the women at a party he was attending while visiting the city the Kentucky Derby calls home.
As a result, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to assume the hats that remain en vogue today are remnants of a fairly antiquated past where they were a staple of the outfits women wore when the inaugural race was hosted all the way back in 1875.
There is some truth to that, as fashion has always been central to the Kentucky Derby. With that said, the hats that were worn back in the day were relatively modest compared to the over-the-top toppers that are essentially the norm in the modern era.
According to Kathy Olliges (the co-owner of a hat store near Churchill Downs), the flashy and oversized ones that are worn nowadays would’ve been viewed as an egregious violation of the rules that governed fashion from the race’s inception up until the 1950s.
However, that all changed when television brought the Kentucky Derby to the masses in the 1960s, which gave spectators (primarily women) some extra incentive to go out of their way to find some attention-grabbing garb with the potential to stand out on the broadcast.
That essentially sparked a sartorial arms race that continues to rage to this day and shows no signs of abating at any point in the future.