When did the Kentucky Derby become a fashion show with a horse race at the end?

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Fascinators, pillboxes, half hats, Dolly Vardens, straw hats, cartwheel hats, mushroom hats, sun hats, bongraces, picture hats, Gainsborough hats, cloche hats, peach basket hats and whatever else can be worn or affixed to the head will be on display this weekend in Louisville, with the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

Though the Derby has been the most famous horse race in the country since 1875 and still commands a large national audience in the days of fragmented viewing, the two-minute competition has recently taken a backseat to fashion. Whereas the Oscar red carpet is about “who are you wearing,” Churchill Downs is filled with questions about what you’re wearing. When did the Kentucky Derby turn into an event better suited for Fashion Week than sports?

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It all began in the early-1870s when Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (actual name — he was the grandson of William Clark and Lewis and Clark fame) went to Europe to study racing in England and France, finding that long-distance races and multi-heat events had been dropped in favor of single-race events. When he returned, Meriweather created a race similar to the famed Epsom Derby. Three-year-olds. A mile-and-a-half. (Later it was knocked down to 1 ¼ miles.) The Epsom, and other races across the pond, insisted on a strict dress code for men and women and that included hats, which was the style at the time.

With the lack of tradition in the States, women were more likely to stay away from gambling, boozing and sporting events. So Clark and his wife enlisted the aid of local socialites to come dressed in full morning dress, which, despite its evocative name, is not the boxers, tank-tops and/or 1993 intramural flag-football champion shirt you wake up in to make coffee. Think of an afternoon version of black tie — for a man, Mr. Peanut or a 1950s cat burglar trying to seduce Grace Kelly at a baccarat table in Monte Carlo. For a woman, conservative dress with a hat and a parasol, like something out of a Seurat painting. And then, very quickly, it all changed.

Prior to the 1960s, a Derby hat was seen by a few thousand people at Churchill Downs. But with the advent of television (and soon, color television) and an emergence for the rigidity of the June Cleaver 1950s, Derby hats became more ostentatious and even more de rigueur with their place in the national spotlight. Then, in 2011, the Derby took place eight days after the Royal Wedding of William and Kate, an event that brought worldwide attention to fashionable headpieces worn by very rich, very famous and very lengthily titled guests. Naturally, Derby attendees stepped up their game that year and have continued to ever since. Now, that parade of hats and the sea of seersucker is arguably bigger than the race itself. (Can you name a single horse in the field?)

Though the best hat viewing can be seen in the boxes, grandstands and suites, even those attending the drunken, frat-party infield have been getting into the spirit, a great change from a century ago when The New York Times declared the infield “about as fashionable as Jones Beach.” Eh, maybe they weren’t too far off.

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