Derby Fashion: Trendy Tips for the 2023 Kentucky Derby

Author: Lindsay Griffin

The Kentucky Derby has been a cultural force in the United States of America since 1875. The historic race has been connected to nearly every major event in modern United States history, from world wars to global pandemics. Photographs and paintings of the Kentucky Derby are snapshots of what life was like for American people at the time of the running of the race.

The horses are the stars of the day, of course, but the Kentucky Derby has never been limited to them. The first Saturday in May has always heavily featured parties, music, bourbon, and fashion.

Indeed, fashion at all levels of society has been inextricably linked to the Kentucky Derby. Whether you’re a socialite attending a pre-Derby gala, or a fan in the infield hoping to draw a few laughs with an elaborate hat, many people dress for the Derby with the hopes of being seen.

How can you draw eyes during your trip to the Kentucky Derby? Here are some fashion tips and inspirations.

Keep Comfort In Mind

While the Derby is an important cultural event, it is important to remember that it is, at its heart, a horse race. You can read more here about betting if it interests you, but in this article we will take our focus elsewhere.

The Derby takes place outdoors in late spring in the American South, so heat and humidity can affect your choices. Wearing clothes that are breathable and easy to move in will help avoid discomfort, as well as embarrassing sweat stains.

You will also want to find comfortable yet fashionable footwear. Churchill Downs is a large establishment, and if you plan on moving between the grandstand, the paddock, and the betting windows, you will cover a lot of ground. Protecting your feet can make the difference between placing your bet in time and being shut out!

The More Elaborate, The Better

A lot of modern fashion is built around the idea of understated elegance. Neutral tones and sleek gowns seem to be favored.

Not so at the Kentucky Derby. When color television first became widespread, women who attended major sporting events used it as a tool to be noticed. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Derby, where much of the coverage occurs prior to the event itself and there was a lot of limelight to grab.

The setting of the race, too, lends itself to a feeling of down-home Southern grandeur, where if you’re not aiming to be the belle of the ball, you might as well not attend. So let yourself go a bit wild- whether that be with bold jewel tones or springy pastels, floral prints or flowing skirts.

It’s All About The Hats

No discussion on Kentucky Derby fashion would be complete without mentioning the crowning glory of any Southern fashion plate: the hat.

The tradition of fancy hats at the Kentucky Derby dates back to the race’s inception in 1875. Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark, the creator of the Kentucky Derby, sought to distance his race’s reputation from that of the typical racetrack degenerate. He urged racegoers to dress in their finest attire, as though they were attending an important social gathering, and fashion protocol at the time dictated hats for men and women alike.

Gentlemen, of course, may opt for the Derby hat, which is referred to by its makers as a bowler. With their curved top and short brim, they are generally more sturdy than the formal top hat. The headwear seems to have gained its nickname in the nineteenth century, when the English Earl of Derby popularized it, even notably wearing it to the famous English race bearing his name.

The ladies have a variety of hat styles to choose from. Some prefer a wide-brimmed hat, often trimmed with lace, ribbon, or flowers. However, fascinators, which are smaller headpieces pinned directly to the wearer’s head, are gaining popularity. These lightweight pieces are available in hundreds of different designs and found in any color of the rainbow.

Of course, silly hats are always a sight at the Derby as well! Some people construct hats which are comically large, which are designed to hold mint juleps, or which depict the track or even the horses themselves! Those looking for laughs and notoriety flock to this option- and master crafters need not apply!

 

 

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