You have to tip your hat to the fans at Churchill Downs. For nearly 150 years, they have shown up on the first Saturday in May wearing their Sunday best–or better.
The tradition of wearing fanciful millinery with colorful dresses and suits dates back to the origins of the Kentucky Derby itself. When Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.—grandson of the great American explorer—helped establish the race in 1875, he wanted it to evoke the glamour of England’s Epsom Derby, which had strict rules for attire, including hats. Clark also thought that asking Louisvillians to come in “full morning dress” would help keep away some of the undesirables who might be attracted to a sporting event where there would be gambling and drinking.
Today, there is no official dress code at Churchill Downs, although spectators at the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby hardly need reminding that they are as much on parade as the Thoroughbreds in the paddock. Clark’s original fashion policy is just fine with the 150,000 who will attend the first leg of the Triple Crown. Even fans who wouldn’t know a furlong from a fetlock, understand that Derby Day requires the widest brims, the boldest colors and the most outrageous equestrian clichés.
Few have fun with playing dress-up more than the celebrities who attend the Kentucky Derby every year. Among the stars in attendance this year are Louisville’s own Jack Harlow (who just released the song “Churchill Downs” with Drake, also in attendance), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jason Aldean and WWE champion Bianca Belair, who made her own hat for the big day—and brought a matching belt.
Roses have been associated with the Derby since 1896, when the winning horse, Ben Brush, was awarded a garland of pink and white roses. Eight years later, red became the official color of the Derby rose and fans have been in full bloom ever since. (Pink remains the official color of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.)
Of course, not every Derby fan is a fan of roses and many spectators sport a bouquet of other flowers to the big race. On Derby Day, a mint sprig also counts as part of a floral arrangement.
Going big on Derby Day can also mean wearing something extra-wide or towering, like the famed Twin Spires themselves.
Even those fans who opt for a more modest fascinator—typically finely feathered—occasionally aim high with their frivolous Derby Day fashion.
And as always, there are spectators who come to Churchill Downs and remind other fans what really matters on Derby Day—the horses.