The history of the derby hat

Written by maureen katemopoulos
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There are "derby" hats and there are "Derby" hats. The derby hat is a stiff man's hat that dates back to the 1800s when it was first made in England. The Derby hat usually refers to hats worn mostly by women attending the Kentucky Derby, the annual first leg of American horse racing's Triple Crown, which has become a major fashion event in addition to the leading event on the American horse racing calendar.

A Commission

The derby hat, also known as the "bowler" hat, originated in England. The first such hat was made in the mid-19th century by the London hat firm of Thomas and William Bowler, after whom it was named. They had received an order from another hat maker, Lock & Co. of St. James. Lock had been commissioned to create a hat to protect the heads of gamekeepers on horseback, from the branches of overhanging trees.

People's Derby

The commissioned hat went on to become a popular people's choice. It was less formal than the conventional top hat favoured by the upper classes, and less casual than the soft cap worn by the working classes. Subsequently, the hat made its way to America, where it was given a different name, the "derby" hat.

Styling and Care

Bowler or derby hats are labelled as "stiff" hats, with a coat of shellac applied to make them stronger, in keeping with their original function, which was head protection. These hats continue to be worn and are available in a selection of styles. There are some flexible versions with more give and shaped to fit the head more comfortably. One of the recommendations is to brush the derby hat with a soft bristle brush to keep it dust-free, and to store it when not in use.

The Kentucky Derby

The other Derby hat is associated with The Kentucky Derby, which takes place annually on the first Saturday in May, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Since the first Kentucky Derby Race was run in 1875 and won by Aristides, it has become a tradition for women attending the event to wear special hats to mark the occasion. Hats of all sizes, colours and designs can be seen on the day, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. However, it is all in fun, and creativity is the main theme.


Kentucky Derby hats are among the exhibits on display at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, which illustrates what an important part of Derby day they have become. Derby hats are no longer the exclusive domain of women. Men also wear hats to the Kentucky Derby, though theirs are usually less eye-catching than most of the women's hats. In addition to the hats, the Kentucky "Derby" takes its name from the English Epsom Derby. The Epsom Derby was, in turn, named after Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, who inaugurated the race in 1780.

Successful Promotion

The success of the Kentucky Derby apparently owes much to Col. Matt J. Winn, who steered Churchill Downs from 1902. Winn managed to persuade influential horse racing owners in New York (then the main focus of North American horse racing) to enter their horses in the Kentucky Derby. By 1920, the Kentucky Derby was the premier prestige horse racing event in North America for 3-year-old thoroughbred horses.

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