Derby Through The Decades
The Kentucky Derby has taken place at Churchill Downs since its debut in 1875. Image from Churchill Downs Incorporated.
The Kentucky Derby is all about horse racing, but style is also an indispensable part of its annual fanfare. Over the years, this world-renowned sporting event has become known for its sartorial flair. Kentucky Derby fashion combines charm and sophistication with the occasional whimsical touch. At the heart of it all is, of course, the hat.
The Derby's origins date back to the late 19th century. After watching horse races in Europe, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. established the Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky in 1875. People were nervous about potential dangers with gambling and drinking at the races. The emphasis on fashion and socializing, however, drew women to the tracks.
For over 100 years, people have pored over what to wear to the Kentucky Derby. Kentucky Derby fashion history traditionally consisted of hats, gloves, and long skirts until trendier styles took off during the mid-20th century. Get on your mark and get set in your finest equestrian fits — come along with us as we break down the Kentucky Derby timeline on the style front!
After World War II, women dressed to impress for high society. In vogue were tea-length dresses and cat-eye glasses. Widespread public exposure raised the style stakes at the races. The Kentucky Derby first entered American homes through national live television in 1952, with 10 to 15 million viewers tuning in. Women dressed to the nines, donning fine hats and gloves. On the other hand, Kentucky Derby fashion for men consisted of straw hats and tailored suits.
The dress-to-impress sensibility maintained momentum in the '60s. In 1966, Millionaires Row opened at the Derby, emerging as an exclusive seating section where people were their best dressed. While many embraced traditional styles, the hippy and feminist movements put edgy looks into the mainstream. Miniskirts and pantsuits were of the moment, with splashy patterns and shorter hemlines dominating. As for Kentucky Derby fashion hats, colors became punchier, and brims grew wider.
The 1970s went down as a landmark decade in Derby history. In 1970, Diane Crump became the first female jockey in the races. Three years later, Secretariat won the fastest finishing time to date — 1:59:40. The '70s were also pivotal for J.McLaughlin. Brothers Jay and Kevin McLaughlin founded our company in 1977. They aspired towards a sportswear brand that infused classic styles with modern relevance. This approach resonated with the balance of timeless fashion statements at the races, which then consisted of trendy trapeze dresses as well as traditionally longer skirts.
The '80s were a historical decade for the Derby, literally. In 1985, a museum was established to honor the history of the Kentucky Derby. A year later, the Churchill Downs Racetrack earned recognition as a National Historic Landmark. In fashion, loose frocks and cocktail dresses defined this decadent era. Derby hat wearers also took inspiration after Princess Diana's John Boyd headwear.
The '90s ushered in changes to the event and its styles. Future Wagers were introduced so that fans could bet on contenders leading up to the race. At the turn of the century, the Kentucky Derby celebrated its 125th running. By then, the gloves came off, but the hats stayed. In the crowds, women flaunted sundresses and skirts.
By the 21st century, all kinds of styles emerged at the Derby, which flaunted a rainbow in its bustling crowds. Hats became even more popular with royal culture influence, particularly following Kate and William's wedding. The Derby remained popular. Indeed, it reached its highest attendance in 2012 with 165,307 fans present — impressively, $133.1 million was wagered as well.
With over 140 stores today, J.McLaughlin has been inspired by neighborhood cultures all over America. Kentucky Derby culture, for example, has left an indelible mark on Louisville, which is now home to our shop on 3931 Chenoweth Square.
Match your statement hat with a classy outfit for an effortlessly elegant Derby look. For inspiration, check out J.McLaughlin’s tips on how to celebrate the Kentucky Derby in style.