Southern Hats

Headdress has gotten a lot of attention since Saturday, when Princess Beatrice of York’s arrival at the royal wedding made millinery a staple of personal conversations. “British women are brave,“ wrote one pseudo-social critic for yahoo.com. But as sure as it should be no surprise that hats are used as individual style statements, it neither should be a surprise that hats are seen at weddings or when cheering on one’s favorite thoroughbred, as will be seen this Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the running of the 137th Kentucky Derby. Ladies’ hats are not only steeped in tradition, they’re also said to be good luck.

© Steve Ryan | wylio.com

With the recent royal wedding in London, where hats were a requirement for attendees, and the upcoming Kentucky Derby, where hats are a traditional and cultural staple, one has little doubt of this truth.

“Though for many people nowadays, a hat is not the first choice of accessory with which to round off an outfit – shoes, bag, and gloves often seeming more obvious, because of their functional nature – hats,” said British milliner, Alan Couldridge, “do still play a significant role in fashion.”

Famed Irish milliner Philip Treacy, who was the official hat-maker for the royal wedding, and who designed Princess Beatrice’s catching headpiece, has perhaps single handedly put fascinators and similarly extravagant hats back into mainstream style, declared the fashion staple bellasugar (in the past, Treacy has designed for Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, and Sarah Jessica Parker).

With the royal nuptials behind us and the Kentucky Derby just ahead, Treacy, one of the top milliners in the world, has given the hat its return to glory, once a vibrant part of everyday life.

According to uglyhats.com, the hat culture of the derby-going South and that of Southern forebears – seen equally prevalently at Royal Ascot, the British equivalent to the Kentucky Derby – have deep roots in British and European cultural traditions, where chic hats are seen as statements of grace and wealth, though Treacy vehemently disagrees. “Hats are for everyone,” says the designer. “We all have a head and have the possibility of wearing a hat. You feel better for wearing them.”

Add the perception of luck to the equation, and the sentiment seems likely. After all, in recent years, not only have women worn hats around the South, men have also decided to take up the tradition, though admittedly much less elaborately.

“Women generally wear wide-brimmed, Southern-Belle inspired Derby hats that can be decorated with silk flowers, bows, and ribbons, among other things. The most important thing is that a woman’s Derby hat matches her outfit,” said Jessica Elliot, about.com’s style guide. Just grand enough to make Edward Stanley, the twelfth earl of Derby, and namesake of the hat, proud.

In the late-18th Century, the earl organized a horse race called the Epsom Derby. Over time, the term ‘derby’ came to refer to any significant race for three-year-old horses. Racing enthusiasm quickly spread to the Americas, where the Kentucky Derby was established to showcase thoroughbreds.

In the dandy manner of the day, many Englishmen attending the races wore derby hats, and by means of Americans identifying the hat with the races, the nickname stuck, giving birth to the “Derby hat,“ particularly in the South where it remains an established fashion and a remnant of years past.

“Many institutions of Southern culture are vanishing,” Judy McCarthy wrote in “God Save the Kentucky Derby.” “Moonshining, barn-raisings, hominy-poundings, quiltings, fox hunting, homecomings, and hog-killings are but memories. The Kentucky Derby,” she added, “has been a sustaining… vestige of Southern life. Its appeal, of course, extends far beyond the Old South.”

Part of the extension into history is the hat, one of the most identifiable trademarks of race day.

“Any style of hat can be appropriate, from wide styles to bowlers to small-fitted cloches with netting,” said Rita Manzelmann-Browne, head buyer for Miss Jackson’s in Tulsa, who sometimes works with Eileen McClure, an Oklahoman, whose grandmother grew up on a Kentucky plantation. “It’s all about having fun and expressing yourself.”

So, how many hats adorns the closet of an Okie with Kentucky roots? McClure has 15 hats to choose from come Derby Saturday, and, she notes, she always watches the Kentucky Derby in one.

“Derby has character, it has history,” says McClure. “And part of that history is hats.”

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Shane Gilreath

Writer/historian Shane Gilreath is a lifelong Southerner, with an ever growing repertoire, including news, government, and interpretive history. He is twice an author, was editor of The Evangel, and wrote the syndicated column "Under the Kudzu," a conservative Southerners take on world affairs. Shane calls himself a traditionalist and a sports-aholic, listing politics and cultures as particular interests. He's an award winning business owner and a graduate of Cumberland College.