How Large Hats and Other Fabulous Fashions Changed the Course of American Horse Racing


At 142 years old, the Kentucky Derby is one of the longest-running continuous sporting events in the United States. A case could be made that it’s also the longest-running fashion show. Each year on the first Saturday in May, locals, wealthy out-of-towners, and celebrities flock to Louisville’s Churchill Downs with a singular goal: to be the best-dressed person at the track. Wide-brimmed straw hats adorned with flowers, feathers, and lengths of ribbons, and petite, impossibly shaped fascinators sit atop the heads of the well-to-do, and the resulting looks are covered by the media nearly as breathlessly as the three-year-old thoroughbreds who are there to compete.

The history of hats at the Kentucky Derby is as old as the race itself, and can be traced back to one man: Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., who opened Churchill Downs in 1875, envisioned a day at the races as a high-society event, one on par with England’s famous Epsom Derby, where men and women attended in full morning dress. “Around that time, there had been a lull in thoroughbred racing due to the destruction of the Civil War,” Chris Goodlett, the curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, tells mental_floss. To compensate, Clark dispatched rich, fashionable women to recruit other upper-echelon types to attend the race. It worked, and the American horse racing industry was transformed from a den of gambling and drinking—a place no proper 19th-century woman would venture to—into the high-class spectacle we know today.

After the runaway success of the very first Kentucky Derby, racetracks became a place to see and be seen—and for ladies to show off their finest hats and clothes. “By 1916, you had ads appearing in the local paper for ladies to come into Stewart’s department store and buy their complete Derby Day looks,” says Goodlett. “But up through the 1950s, it was customary for women to don hats to society events, so wearing them to the Derby didn’t necessarily receive the level of attention we see now.”

That changed in the 1960s, says Goodlett, when everyone virtually stopped wearing hats—except at the Kentucky Derby. “At that point, the Derby was the only institution really keeping hats on the map,” notes Bri Mott, founder and CEO of Fashion at the Races. And the media, especially the visual medium of television, loved it. “The hats became more of a novelty, and people started going in for more avant-garde creations,” says Goodlett.

The tradition has stuck around, even while everyday hats have not, because getting dressed up for the races is a simple, fun way to lose yourself for a little while, like putting on a costume, says Mott. “Horse racing is known as the Sport of Kings, and when you put on something special and go to the track, you feel like a queen or king for a day.”

In 2012, Churchill Downs, together with luxury watch brand Longines, launched its first fashion contest, held at the Kentucky Oaks, which takes place the day before the Derby. “That really started changing the game for women,” says Mott. “Now, they weren’t just dressing up for themselves, they were competing on a stage for a prize.” The first year had about 50 women contestants; last year that number jumped to 200. And this year’s fashion competition, on May 6, will have photographers from both Vogue and Vanity Fair on hand to cover it.

Though he couldn’t have foreseen it at the time, Clark not only changed the American horse racing industry—opening Churchill Downs, creating the Derby, and writing many racing rules that are still followed today—he changed the face of it, too. “The Derby has never missed a year since 1875, not due to war or the Great Depression,” notes Goodlett. “And with tradition comes expectation. If you don’t know anything about the Derby, people will say, ‘Oh, it’s customary to wear a hat. You better get one.’”

Matthew Stockman, Getty Images
Why Do Wimbledon Players Wear All White?
Matthew Stockman, Getty Images
Matthew Stockman, Getty Images

by James Hunt

Wimbledon's dress code is one of the most famous in sports. The rules, which specify that players must dress "almost entirely in white," are so strict that the referee can force players to change under threat of disqualification. In the past, many of the sport's top players have found themselves on the wrong end of this rule—but where did it come from?

It's believed that the rule stems from the 1800s, when tennis was a genteel sport played primarily at social gatherings, particularly by women. The sight of sweaty patches on colored clothing was considered to be inappropriate, so the practice of wearing predominantly white clothing—a.k.a. tennis whites—was adopted to avoid embarrassment. The All England Club, which hosts Wimbledon, was founded in 1868 (initially as the All England Croquet Club) and introduced Lawn Tennis in 1875.

Quite simply, the club is just a stickler for tradition. Recently issued guidelines for clothing include statements such as "White does not include off-white or cream," that colored trim can be "no wider than one centimeter," and that "undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration)" are not allowed. That's right: even players' underwear has to be white.

The rules have rubbed many famous tennis players the wrong way. In 2013, former Wimbledon champion Roger Federer was told not to wear his orange-soled trainers after they were judged to have broken The All England Club's dress code. In 2002, Anna Kournikova was forced to replace her black shorts with a pair of white ones borrowed from her coach. And Andre Agassi refused to play at Wimbledon in the earlier years of his career because his signature denim shorts and garish tops were banned.

The all-white clothing rule isn't the only piece of baggage that accompanies Wimbledon's long history. It's the only Grand Slam tournament that's still played on a grass court, and the only one that schedules a day off on the middle Sunday of the tournament.

However, the club is not immune to change. In 2003 a long-standing tradition of requiring players to bow or curtsey to the Royal Box on the Centre Court was discontinued by the Duke of Kent (who also happens to be The All England Club's president) who deemed it anachronistic—though the requirement does stand if the Queen or Prince of Wales is in attendance—and in 2007 the prizes for the men's and women's tournaments were made equal. The all-white clothing rule may be annoying for players, but at least the club has shown it can change with the times in the areas where it really matters.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

An Eco-Friendly Startup Is Converting Banana Peels Into Fabric for Clothes

A new startup has found a unique way to tackle pollution while simultaneously supporting sustainable fashion. Circular Systems, a “clean-tech new materials company,” is transforming banana byproducts, pineapple leaves, sugarcane bark, and flax and hemp stalk into natural fabrics, according to Fast Company.

These five crops alone meet more than twice the global demand for fibers, and the conversion process provides farmers with an additional revenue stream, according to the company’s website. Fashion brands like H&M and Levi’s are already in talks with Circular Systems to incorporate some of these sustainable fibers into their clothes.

Additionally, Circular Systems recycles used clothing to make new fibers, and another technology called Orbital spins those textile scraps and crop byproducts together to create a durable type of yarn.

People eat about 100 billion bananas per year globally, resulting in 270 million tons of discarded peels. (Americans alone consume 3.2 billion pounds of bananas annually.) Although peels are biodegradable, they emit methane—a greenhouse gas—during decomposition. Crop burning, on the other hand, is even worse because it causes significant air pollution.

As Fast Company points out, using leaves and bark to create clothing may seem pretty groundbreaking, but 97 percent of the fibers used in clothes in 1960 were natural. Today, that figure is only 35 percent.

However, Circular Systems has joined a growing number of fashion brands and textile companies that are seeking out sustainable alternatives. Gucci has started incorporating a biodegradable material into some of its sunglasses, Bolt Threads invented a material made from mushroom filaments, and pineapple “leather” has been around for a couple of years now.

[h/t Fast Company]


More from mental floss studios