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The spectacular female fashion often seen at the Kentucky Derby is not solely a product of modern times; rather, opulent feminized dress has played a large role in the history of the Kentucky Derby. What Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr., (the founding father of the Kentucky Derby), envisioned was a racing environment that would feel comfortable and luxurious, an event that would remind people of European horse racing. For a well-to-do late 19th and early 20th century woman, a day at Churchill Downs, especially on Derby Day was an opportunity to be seen in the latest of fashions. A journalist from a 1901 Louisville Courier-Journal stated, “The seats in the grandstand were filled with gaily dressed women and men. The mass of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, all the colors of the rainbow, blending into one harmonious whole was as beautiful a sight as His Eminence in the lead.”
What would these women have worn? Perhaps surprising to some, local Louisville women would have had the opportunity to purchase dresses and accessories from a talented group of seamstresses. The dresses in the late 19th through the early 20th century would have emphasized a slimmer bustled silhouette than those of years past. The length of these dresses would have assuredly been long, covering the ankles. Due to the fact that the Kentucky Derby is in the spring, silks would have been a good, warm weather choice. Gloves, hat, and perhaps a parasol were also appropriate choices as well.
As societal rules softened in the 20th century, what was deemed appropriate dress transformed. In the 1920s, women at the Derby could be seen wearing a dress or perhaps a more modern suit, complete with a jacket. Some of the1920s jackets were roomy and accommodating, others were fitted. The hat and gloves were still very much in fashion. The 1930s and 1940s followed in the same vein, with option of a dress or suit; in fact, in the 1930s and 1940s the formal suit seemed to be more popular than the dress.
The 1950s ushered in a renewed prosperity to postwar America and clothing styles reflected that. At the Kentucky Derby, one would have most likely viewed well-dressed women in chic suits, with skirts that were either fitted to the body or billowed outward with the assistance of a petticoat. Again, gloves and hats were still quite popular and still a part of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. The rules that guided so much of 20th century culture seemed to be thrown out the window in the mid-to late 1960s. Though the Derby was still viewed as a most respectable event and women continued to dress as such, a change had occurred. Now that Millionaires Row had opened, society women wore increasingly louder hats and took pride and enjoyment in selecting one. This trend of bigger, more spectacular hats might have developed due to the fact that while society was loosening its grip on the hat and glove formality, the Kentucky Derby offered women a place to continue the old traditions. Patterns and prints were also brighter, and hemlines defiantly were raised, yielding a much different look than years before.
In the 1970s and 1980s was a return to the longer skirt, while the same casual attitude of the 1960s was still in place. From the 1990s to today, the dress at the Derby is slowing replacing the suit, especially with younger women. While gloves are out of fashion, a hat never is, and they tend to get wilder and more expensive every year. The style of the infield today is defiantly relaxed, with women wearing cool sundresses, cotton skirts, or more frequently shorts. Still, the Kentucky Derby has earned its reputation as a fashion playground and here at the Kentucky Derby Museum we would like to capture its dynamic spirit.
Curator of Collections
Kentucky Derby Museum