The vast majority of the race’s millions of viewers show up or tune in primarily to gaze at the marvelous, magnificent being that is the Thoroughbred.
And that is for good reason. The horses that qualify to participate in the Kentucky Derby are the best of the best, and at a gallop, they are poetry in motion.
Their grooms also put in an enormous amount of time and work into making their charges gleam, even when at a standstill. You can check here the complete history of results of the competition: twinspires.com/kentuckyderby/results/
However, while the horses are certainly the event’s biggest draw, they aren’t the only thing that will catch a discerning viewer’s eye.
The people who frequent the Kentucky Derby stand out, and they do it with style. Since the Kentucky Derby first ran in 1875, the fashion associated with it has been spectacular and unique.
What outfits are on display at the Kentucky Derby, and how have they changed in the past 150th years?
Men’s fashion in the late nineteenth century generally consisted of pants and a wool coat, generally with a straight cut that was relatively fitted. The last few decades of the century also saw the rise of the modern three-piece suit and tuxedo, versions of which are still popular today.
Today, although men still sometimes wear suits or tuxedos to the Kentucky Derby, there are more lightweight options. Some restaurants at the track do require a sport coat and/or tie, but for most men, a collared linen shirt and pants will suffice.
Of course, the casual infield viewer is not held to the standards of fashion, and many young men opt for casual clothes such as T-shirts and shorts. These options may not be the most eye-catching, but they are quite comfortable, especially if the patron will be walking around quite a bit.
Ladies’ fashion has changed more dramatically. Women never wore pants, much less shorts; instead, in the earliest years of the Kentucky Derby, skirts and dresses with bustles were becoming popular. Bodices were form-fitting and intricately designed, and sleeves were often bell-shaped.
The 1890s saw women’s fashion begin to become less elaborate with the advent of the shirtwaist style, which featured a simple skirt and a tailored blouse. The early twentieth century saw skirt hemlines shorten and corsets vanish, but it wasn’t until women stormed the workforce in the middle decades that pants were incorporated into the trends.
Nowadays, many women still wear dresses or skirts to the Kentucky Derby, although as with men’s fashion, the choices tend to be much more lightweight. Women can also wear fashionable, tailored pantsuits that are still distinctly feminine. And like casual male viewers, women in the crowd can wear T-shirts, shorts, or jeans.
You cannot, of course, have a conversation about the fashion at the Kentucky Derby and not mention the hats.
A Derby, apart from being a race for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses, is also a nickname for a hat that is more correctly known as a bowler. Bowler hats were created in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and they became popular at the racetrack because their curved dome made them less likely to be knocked from the wearer’s head by wind than a standard top hat.
Americans who visited Britain’s grandest racing events took notice of the popular headgear and nicknamed it the Derby hat, as it was a common sight at the race of the same name. The fashion trend had fully crossed the pond by the time the Kentucky version of the race was created, and many American men sported Derby hats at the early iterations of their own Derby.
Nowadays, it is far less common for gentlemen to wear hats with formal wear, but when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, some still do. Modern and fashionable hats for men include straw boaters, fedoras, and newsboy caps, and all can be found at the Run for the Roses.
Women have always donned hats at the Kentucky Derby. Originally, this was a practical need; the Kentucky Derby is run in late spring and a wide-brimmed hat went a long way in protecting a lady’s delicate skin. Hats were also, however, a way for a woman to show off her social status. Many believed that to wear a bigger hat was to display a higher social standing, and beyond feathers, some early hats included live birds.
While the use of live animals is discouraged in modern Kentucky Derby headpieces, some of the hats that are meant for laughs rather than a true fashion statement depict images or even models of horses running around the “track” (usually the brim of the hat) or bobbing their heads in the wind.
More elegant choices for modern fashionable women include fascinators, which are small, colorful pieces fastened to the wearer’s head. These often include feathers, lace, or flowers. Wide-brimmed hats in various colors are also equal parts showy and comfortable.