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The history of the Kentucky Derby hat

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This Saturday will be the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, and when you think of the Kentucky Derby, the first thing that comes to mind should probably be horses, but, for a lot of people, it’s hats!

So how did hats become synonymous with this race?

The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875 at the Churchill Downs racetrack near Louisville, Kentucky. The race inspired by the famed derby races in England and the Grand Prix de Paris in France. Europe’s horse races are posh and sophisticated events, but in the United States horse-racing was associated with gambling and drinking, not really a family environment.

In order to ensure that the Kentucky Derby would match the tone of the high society races in Europe, women needed to be there, so in an effort to get women to the track the organizers decided to implement the high-end "full morning dress code" to all who came to the race.

The full morning dress was the most formal dress code there was for daytime events. For men, that included waistcoats, top hats, and cravats. Women wore dresses, gloves, and hats, but initially the hats weren't as colorful as today. During the 1960s, wearing hats became less and less of a social norm, and more for special events. That’s when the hats at the derby started getting bigger, bolder, and more colorful.

The hat's popularity dipped in the 1970s and 80s, but is now more popular than ever and are a staple of style watches during the Kentucky Derby. People can spend up to $3,000 on a custom made hat. The Kentucky Derby is the ultimate high society and fashion event, so much so that it’s hard to imagine the "Run for the Roses" without this highly personalized accessory.