When Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. founded the Kentucky Derby, the racetrack was known as a venue for hedonism and vice. Inspired by his visits to London's Epsom Derby and Paris' Grand Prix, Clark envisioned an equestrian park filled with wealthy, upper crust patrons.
To help make the transformation a reality, he sought the advice and assistance of his wife. The two of them launched a publicity campaign throughout Louisville, Kentucky to convince the socialites that it was a new day for the racetrack, a day for elite class entrainment.
Mobilized by the Clarks, a group of noted, high-society women knocked on their friends' doors. "We are having a picnic at the racetrack," they invited. When the first Kentucky Derby day arrived on a sunny, spring Monday in 1875, more than 10,000 curious spectators turned out. The New York Times reported that "the grandstand was thronged by a brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen." A stark contrast to the racetrack's former days. The picnic invitation had been a tremendous success and the Kentucky Derby quickly came to be a place to see and to be seen.
Women took the opportunity to put on the ritz. They coordinated their dresses, bags, hats, and parasols with a statement-making hat. To insure their dress attires were accented to the optimum, they ordered their hats from milliners in advance. During the 1960's the trendy gave way to the opulent and the extravagant as ladies began seeking to catch the attention of the television camera.
Today, hats from the elegant to the eccentric adorn the heads of Derby attendees. All rules are off the table. It is, however, considered to be a fashion faux pas for a lady to attend the Derby and not wear a hat.