History of Fashion at the Races

  • History of Fashion at the Races


The Sport of Kings is rooted in tradition, and nothing exemplifies this more than the fashion on display at the track. Even those who don’t know much about horse racing know that it is synonymous with high fashion, most particularly in terms of hats.

While chariot racing and mounted horse racing were popular in the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, it wasn’t until a later time that Thoroughbred horse racing became popular with the aristocrats and royalty of Great Britan, accounting for its namesake as the “Sport of Kings”. The sport migrated to the United States in the 17th century; however, the gambling and drinking associated with racing tainted its reputation. It especially was not considered an appropriate hobby for women and children.

The upscale dress and flamboyant hat traditions that are now emblematic of a day at the races stemmed from Britain’s Royal Ascot. The Royal Ascot was indeed a royal affair., drawing the likes of King Edward VI to Queen Elizabeth II. Because it was considered disrespectful to have one’s head uncovered in the presence of the monarch and inappropriate to dress informally when the queen was present, hats and fashionable attire were customary.

It was Kentucky Derby founder Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. who transformed these standards back in the States. Inspired by trips to London’s more sophisticated tracks, he developed a campaign in the late, 19th century to change the perception of a day at the races. With his wife, he visited local women’s clubs and went door-to-door to invite women to the event and encouraging them to wear their very best. his campaign, as we know, was a successful one that was transcended through the years to become a principal feature of not just the Kentucky Derby but other signature races across the globe. The Arlington Million is one of these races, boasting a fashion hat content each year and inviting all attendees to pull out all the stops in terms of their ensembles for the day.