We’ve all seen the beautiful southern belles in wide brim hats adorning Churchill Downs every spring for the Kentucky Derby but few belles are probably aware of where exactly the inspiration for such attire comes from. The roots of the Kentucky Derby can actually be traced all the way back to the 18th century with the rise of the famed Royal Ascot races held every year since 1711 in England, just 6 miles from Winsor Castle. Viewed as one of the most glamorous annual events held in England, the Royal Ascot horse races are attended by the Royal family and members of the elite that adhere to a strict dress code of sophisticated attire.
The official Royal Ascot website states, “Royal Ascot is synonymous with sartorial elegance. This is upheld by our dress code, which invites guests to contribute to an occasion heralded as a major fashion event in its own right.” Included on the site is a style guide and general rules of dress, hats required.
Kentucky, in its own right had become synonymous with horse breeding and racing by the introduction of the Royal Ascot but it wasn’t until 1875 that our own version of Ascot was created which we called the Kentucky Derby. Founded by Meriwether Clark Jr., grandson to the famed William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Meriwether began his own expedition into horse raising when he built Churchill Downs. Known as “The most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby to this day attracts visitors from around the world. In fact, many hat and clothing choices worn at the derby are inspired by its alternative name, the Run for the Roses. It’s not unusual to see roses on hats, shoes, dresses and lapels at the Kentucky Derby.
Having been modeled after the Royal Ascot, it was tradition in 1875 for the women who attended the derby to dress in their sunday best. It was also common at the time for dress-up occasions to include elaborate hats, a tradition which stuck. During the 1800’s it was customary for women to wear hats to protect their eyes from the sun and their faces from sunburns. While todays Kentucky Derby dress code is dressed down in comparison to the current attire of Ascot, one might argue that our hats are actually dressed up. Many hats seen at the Royal Ascot are simpler and adhere more to the current fashion trends in England where hats are still regularly worn.
Churchill Downs is one of the oldest racetracks in America and certainly the most well known. Every year the University of Louisville’s marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” as the southern bells wearing beautiful hats drink Mint Juleps and watch as horses are paraded before the grandstands. The Kentucky Derby has become an event like no other, attracting the eyes of the world as everyone clamors for a front row seat to the biggest horse and hats event there is.