The Kentucky Derby, which has been run every year since 1875, has evolved several associated traditions. For example, the mint julep – an iced drink made with bourbon, mint and sugar syrup – is the traditional beverage of the race. Another Derby tradition is the consumption of burgoo – a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables. However, the tradition that seems most visible, and one that is also closest to our hearts, is that of wearing outrageous hats to the Derby. Wearing a hat to the Derby is viewed as being good luck, and even the men have begun to join the ladies in this fun tradition.


The original Derby hat was a man’s hat. The derby hat, also known as the “bowler” hat, originated in England. The first such hat was made in the mid-19th century by the London hat firm of Thomas and William Bowler, after whom it was named. They had received an order from another hat maker, Lock & Co. of St. James. Lock had been commissioned to create a hat to protect the heads of gamekeepers on horseback, from the branches of overhanging trees.

Today, we think of women’s hats when we think of Derby hats. Most of us can recall the image of Eliza Doolittle’s fabulous black-and-white outfit with its attendant ENORMOUS hat from the movie “My Fair Lady”. While the costumes in this movie were generally over-the-top in the fine Hollywood costume tradition, they weren’t too far off the mark. In the 1870’s a hat was an indispensible part of a lady’s attire when attending an event out-of-doors. Indeed it would have been scandalous for a lady to appear in public without one. In addition to the rigid fashion rules about what to wear, there was also the more pragmatic reason of sun protection. The wider the brim on a hat, the better protected was the wearer from the sun’s effects. Having sun-darkened skin was ever the mark of a lower class person, and Victorian ladies went to great lengths to maintain the fairest skin possible by always wearing a hat when outside, and carrying a parasol as well.


Of course, the wearing of wide-brimmed ladies hats has always been a fine Southern tradition. At some point, the idea of just wearing a hat to the races evolved into wearing an attention-grabbing hat, and the race – so to speak – was on. Today, it is nearly impossible to wear a hat that is too outrageous. We have also expanded the hat-wearing fun to include almost any horse race – not just the Derby. In addition, it is a fun tradition to have a private party with a Derby theme, so any of us might have the perfect excuse to own a truly wonderful hat!