Extravagant, colorful, and eye-catching. These are some of the traits that we tend to associate with the lavish hats that are worn to the Kentucky Derby. But when did the tradition of wearing these hats begin? To find out more about the famed Kentucky Derby hats, you’ll need to look back into the late 19th century.

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.

The Kentucky Derby was established by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. after his visit to Europe in 1872. He saw the English Derby races and the French Grand Prix de Paris. These races were viewed as high-class events and, at the time, wearing a beautiful hat was just part of your formal attire, along with gloves.

derby race

Clark wanted his races to be highbrow like the races in Europe and he raised the money to build his own racetrack outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Whereas the races were common in France and Britain, American women were wary of horse racing due to its associations with drinking, gambling, and an overall seedy environment.

However, Clark thought of a solution ahead of time.

He and his wife had some of the Louisville women picnic at the races with their friends. The attendees of the races were required to wear “full morning dress.” Therefore, the women added hats and gloves to their outfits to make them more formal and glamorous.

The Rise of the Derby in the U.S.

On the day of the first Kentucky Derby, there were over 10,000 spectators and it was a sunny spring day. This first derby started the precedent for derbies to come, as the event was quite fashionable in regards to what they wore and the people who were there to see the races.

first kentucky derby race

Two years later Helena Modjeska, the Polish actress and the first international celebrity to attend the Kentucky Derby, would grace the stands and more celebrities would follow. It was similar to the opening night of a show or a lavish party.

The media, as they are today, were interested in the guests at the Kentucky Derby and the clothes that they were wearing from their suits and dresses to their formal hats.

The Fashion

Women would match their hats with their dress, their shoes, their parasols, and their bags. Often, upper class women would order their hats from abroad, be it from Paris or Milan. They wanted to stand out, look their best, and be noticed.

Types of People

Middle and lower class women wanted to look their best, as well, but generally had to settle for buying their hats off the rack.

Fashion became more casual in the 1960s and people were less likely to wear hats on an everyday basis.

However, this became an opportunity to save their biggest, best, and most colorful hats to wear to the Kentucky Derby and the hats became increasingly wild, quirky, and exciting.


Since then, the hats of the Kentucky Derby have been a staple of the event and we still look forward to seeing them today and admiring their artistry and boldness. VPMaps homepage.

The History of Kentucky Derby Hats

One thought on “The History of Kentucky Derby Hats

  • April 16, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    I love the Kentucky Derby but I hate mint juleps. I don’t know why they are so popular.


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