Some are tasteful, some are fashionable, and some are completely over-the-top. They’re Derby hats, and they’re an iconic part of Kentucky Derby Day.
“Fashion has been part of the Derby ever since the beginning in 1875,” says Chris Goodlett, Curator of Collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “At that time, they had a ladies’ committee, and that was a committee of men—not of women—but their charge was to kind of seat the women and make sure all their comforts were given attention and taken care of.”
In the early days, putting a focus on fashion enticed more women to take an interest in the race at a time when horseracing was largely a masculine world. Bringing in women helped to carve out the Kentucky Derby’s reputation as a society event.
To this day, the Kentucky Derby is much more than just those two minutes on the track.
“We have the It’s My Derby exhibit here at the Kentucky Derby Museum which really kind of celebrates the Derby as that cultural event that it is,” says Goodlett. “As part of that, we want to look at the fashion.”
The exhibit includes a display of Derby hats from throughout history and features selected entries from the museum’s annual contest.
“The day after Derby every year, we ask people to start submitting their hats, whether they’re professional milliners or amateurs” says Goodlett. “We average 30 to 50 a year and about the best 20 or 25 will end up on exhibition for a year.”
Angie Schultz is a hat designer who creates one-of-a-kind hats through her business, Attitudes by Angie.
“This is the big time,” says Schultz. “This is for the women to dress up and strut their stuff.”
Schultz reassures women that her hats are comfortable, and shopping for a Derby hat can be an easy, stress-free experience.
“You’ve got to make it enjoyable,” she says. “And then they get excited and they put my hat on and it has that energy, and they have that attitude. It’s fun! It’s the true red carpet that we get to have in Louisville.”
For Derby-goers seeking a vintage look with a custom design, Jenny Pfanenstiel, owner of Louisville-based Formé Millinery, is the go-to milliner. She’s created hats for some of the most famous women in the world, including Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Madonna.
“I make them all from scratch, all handmade using a technique that dates back over 100 years called blocking,” says Pfanenstiel.
“I love old styles, sometimes people think that the hats that I have in my shop are vintage, and they’re not,” she explains. “They’re all brand new, but the reason why they may look that way is because a lot of my hat blocks are from the 20s and the 40s and even older than that.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2016, which originally aired on May 2, 2015. Watch the full episode.