The Difference Between the Kentucky Derby Hat and Fascinator
Win the day in stylish headgear.
If the horse race is the headlining event that takes place at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, the proverbial parade of attendees’ haute headwear and feathery fascinators can claim the second most important affair of the day.
As with the race itself, Derby fashion has a colorful history of its own.
When Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (yes, the grandson of that Clark) hosted the first Derby in 1875, he had to transform the racetrack from a venue of ill repute to a posh place for high-society folks to gather. So he invited society’s most-admired and best-dressed women to attend, and their friends followed suit, thus attracting the clientele he had hoped to bring to the races. Because Clark wanted to recreate the elegant atmosphere of the races he’d experienced abroad, he required attendees to show up in “full morning dress,” aka daytime formal wear. The fashionable tradition stuck, and it’s still considered to be one of the most stylish sporting events around.
While hats were part of morning dress, women’s hats didn’t really take center stage at the Derby until the ‘60s, when society rules mellowed out, and they could have more fun with fashion. Plus, with the arrival of television, wearing a dynamite hat was an easy way to stand out and potentially steal a little screen time.
These days, you don’t need a full camera crew to inspire a fashion-forward choice: Instagram offers plenty of opportunities to show off your headgear, whether you go bright and bold with feathers and flowers, or you keep it classic with a wide-brimmed sunhat crowned with a simple bow.
“The Pantone color of the year is coral, so expect to see this color in all shades in fascinators, hats, and dresses,” says Christine A. Moore, the featured milliner of the 145th Derby. “Personally, I love coral and think it should be a staple in the quintessential Derby ladies’ wardrobe!”
If you want to make an equally impressive statement on a smaller scale, the fascinator is a smart choice. Typically clipped directly to your hair or perched on a headband or comb (with no brim or crown), fascinators didn’t earn the name “fascinator” until the 1960s, when American milliner John P. John appropriated the term for what was then known as a clip-hat or half-hat. (In the 17thcentury, the term had been used to describe a lacy scarf that women “fastened” around their heads.) While fashion’s interest in fascinators waned in the ‘70s, they made a major comeback in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And our fascination with fascinators has only grown since, especially after the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, when many of the high-profile guests donned artful fascinators that drew plenty of admiration, and in some cases, caused a little confusion (Looking at you, Princess Beatrice).
But when it comes to the great hat-versus-fascinator debate for the Derby, Moore says it all comes down to personal preference and where you’ll be watching the races. “For at-home Derby parties, you should consider where you’ll be celebrating: If you’re going to be outside, you may want to choose a hat for coverage from the sun,” says Moore. “If you’re headed to Louisville, a fascinator is easier to travel with. It fits neatly into a smaller box, and some are even packable.”
But whether you choose to crown your Derby look with a wide-brimmed hat or a feathery fascinator, you’ll be sure to turn heads in style. The worst mistake you can make is not wearing one at all!
WATCH: How to Make a Fascinator
Whether you're celebrating the Kentucky Derby at home or headed to historic Churchill Downs this year, be sure to look the part with a dynamite dress and a pretty fascinator. Here, we're teaching you how to make a stylish hat on a budget. And good news! It's easier than you'd think.