The Evolution of the Race Day Hat

The Evolution of the Race Day Hat

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The races have many practices and traditions, but one of the most notable is ladies’ fashion, in particular the wearing of elaborate hats. This custom can be seen all over the world, from the Kentucky Derby to the Grand National and while the trends may change, the rules generally remain the same – the bigger and more elaborate, the better!

Whether you make your own or enlist the services of a milliner, there’s no doubt that hats are one of the most important fixtures in any race. So, how did the ladies’ hat become such a fixture at the races in the first place?

It started with a King

Horse racing can be traced back as far as the 12th century when English knights returned from the Crusades with Arab horses. These horses were bred with English horses to produce the Thoroughbred racehorses that we know today.

During his reign from 1660 to 1685, King Charles II held regular horse races between two horses on open fields with a prize for the winner. Later, under the reign of Queen Anne, races developed to have multiple horses and a dedicated track, and thus racing was established as a professional sport.

The races became known as the “Sport of Kings” as it attracted the elite members of society. This meant that the races became synonymous with wealth, success and high fashion. People who attended always wore their most treasured clothing and finery so as not to be upstaged by other guests.

Trackside fashion

When racing really took off, hats were an everyday item of clothing for almost all members of society. So, wearing a hat to the races was a natural step in the development of trackside fashion. Ladies were encouraged to display their status through fashion, particularly if they were married to wealthy men, as this would demonstrate how wealthy he was. 

A number of other fashion rules were introduced, such as knee-length hemlines and covered shoulders. Dresses went through a multitude of styles, from the flapper designs of the Twenties through to the flamboyant ruffles of the Eighties. But the one thing that consistently gave women a way to express themselves was the hat.

Hats off

Fashion became a huge fixture in the races by the early 20th century, and much of the attention was on the headwear. This put hats front and centre stage and gave attendees the opportunity to flaunt increasingly extravagant hats.

In much the same way that Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson made cowboy hats synonymous with poker, and 1940s Hollywood made fedoras synonymous with film noir, extravagant hats are now intrinsically linked with a day at the races. Even as the fashion for hat-wearing began to decline in everyday society, the trend for headwear continued to thrive on race day.  

So, why is the hat still such a hugely important part of fashion at the races? The races are a unique occasion and wearing a hat demonstrates respect for the tradition and honours it in a way that is also artistic and beautiful. These days, people enlist the bespoke services of independent milliners to create their showstopping look for race day, which has led to hats of all shapes and sizes being spotted at the races.    

What to wear

If you are thinking of attending the races, your first step is to find out the current trends. Lately, there are trends towards head jewellery, as well as boater style hats and the return of more traditional, structured hats with lots of veiling. However, if you would prefer to go completely over the top then there are plenty of options to choose from, just let your imagination run wild!

You also need to consider the colour of your hair, if you have lighter locks then try to choose a colour that will contrast with it so that the hat stands out more in photographs. Avoid darker hats if you have darker hair for the same reason.

Whichever hat you decide to go for, remember to take proper care of it by keeping it in a hatbox so that you can use it time and time again.

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