How to Pick the Perfect Kentucky Derby Hat

Kentucky derby hats worn by many women

 Bill Brine/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Kentucky Derby hats are not only a fashion tradition, but they're also said to be good luck. Traditionally, Kentucky Derby hats have been worn by women, but over the last few years, many men have been taking part in the fun as well. The trend started way back at the beginning of the Churchill Downs, as founder Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. wanted his horse races to be formal affairs for society folk—attendees had to wear full morning dress, including hats. The races quickly became as much about fashion as they did about the horses. The personality found in today's hats was introduced in the 1960s, when edgier fashion came into vogue and the presence of TV cameras necessitated drawing the most attention to oneself.

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Kentucky Derby Fashion Tips

Fans react as a drummer performs in the infield prior to the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Shaban Athuman/Getty Images

If you're going to the Kentucky Derby, you’ll want to make sure you're familiar with Kentucky Derby fashion. Most men at the Kentucky Derby wear brightly hued suits, though any color goes here, and you won't necessarily look out of place in blacks, browns, and blues. Women often pair spring-colored dresses with their over-the-top Derby hats.

Kentucky Derby fashions on the field vary greatly from those found inside of Churchill Downs. In the Infield, the center portion of the track, Derby hats take a more outlandish shape. Because a Derby hat is not essential in the Infield, people generally wear them to express their originality rather than follow a set of fashion rules. In the Infield you can find hats in all shapes and sizes, some even flaunting humorous or satirical themes.

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Choosing a Kentucky Derby Hat

A general view of atmosphere during the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky
Stephen J. Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

Most guests let their personality fly free in their outfit choices, but most of all, in their hats. Women in the stands generally wear wide-brimmed, Southern-Belle inspired Derby hats that can be decorated with silk flowers, bows, and ribbons, among other things. The most important thing is that a woman's Derby hat matches her dress. In the Infield, women wear all sorts of hats, including outlandish fascinators. 

Men's Derby hats are generally solid in color and in styles that are reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties, though as for the ladies, Infield styles take on more personality and flair.

Keep in mind that the most important characteristic of a Derby hat is its originality. You may want to have your Derby hat custom made or, if you're crafty, you may want to make it yourself

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Louisville Derby Hat Shops

Elegant Kentucky Derby hat
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The following is a small sample of local Derby hat shops that can help you in your pursuit for the perfect piece:

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Tips for Wearing Derby Hats

Kentucky Derby Hat Contest at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, United States.
Jeff Snyder/FilmMagic/Getty Images

It's important to make sure that your Derby hat will stay securely on your head even in strong winds—bring some bobby pins just in case the weather is uncooperative. And speaking of weather, you're going to want to wear your Derby hat rain or shine, but you're not going to want to ruin your hat. Play it safe and bring a large, clear plastic bag so that you can still wear your hat or store it someplace dry in case of rain.

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