While most people associate the Kentucky Derby with horse betting and mint juleps there is another sideshow that appears annually at Churchill Downs: a wide array of fancy hats on women (and some men). In fact, women in stylish dresses and loud—sometime garish—hats is synonymous with every major American horse race.
So how did all of this start? You have to go back to the early days of the Kentucky Derby to find the answer. The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, the brainchild of Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, who was the grandson of William Clark of ‘Lewis and Clark’ fame. Clark traveled to Europe and was captivated by England’s Epsom Derby horse race at the famed Epsom Downs race track. When he returned to Kentucky he set about recreating the track and race in his home state. The land for the track was donated by Clark’s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, and the horse racing facility soon became known as ‘Churchill Downs’ although it wouldn’t be officially incorporated under that name until the 1930’s. After some rough going in the early years the Churchill Downs race track and the Kentucky Derby itself became the signature event for the region and the sport.
Part of the success involved changing the image of the Derby. In the early days—and quite honestly today, at least most of the time—horse racing was viewed as something of a low brow masculine enterprise. In fact, the race track was considered a place that women and children would not usually be seen. This was in marked contrast to Europe, where high society flocked to the big events like the Epsom Derby in London and the Grand Prix in Paris. Clark knew that if his horse race was to become a big event and not just another 'day at the track' he had to change the image.
For that he enlisted the help of his wife. With her he did what was in essence an political campaign to convince the upper crust of Louisville that the race track was where they wanted to be seen. The media quickly caught on to his plan and they began to speculate that if Clark could make the Derby 'fashionable' that the rich and famous of the region would flock to what was being pitched as 'a picnic at the race track'.
Somehow the Clark's ersatz campaign worked. On the day of the first Kentucky Derby nearly 10,000 people showed up—among them a coterie of well dressed ladies with regal hats. It was such a big event that it received coverage in major publications like the New York Times and the rest was history. The following year the upper class was back but so too were the lower socio-economic classes with one common bond—they were all wearing fancy hats. Historians speculate that the hat was something that even a person of average means could aspire to and for one day at least they could look like part of the 'upper crust'.
So it continued for years but the trend gained new life in the 60's when the convergence of history and the prevailing sartorial trends created the rush to wear more and more elaborate hats. This trend continues through the present. Now fashion magazines and style sections of newspapers focus on the dresses and hats as the sporting press focuses on Kentucky Derby betting.