Photo by KDCosta, 2015.

Last Saturday over 170,000 people descended on Churchill Downs for the 141st Kentucky Derby. The Derby is the first of three races that comprise the American Triple Crown which awards a multi-million dollar purse. The Derby is a day steeped in tradition that includes mint juleps, the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the purported fastest two minutes in sports, a reference to the much anticipated running of the three-year-old Thoroughbreds who are the featured entertainment. What else? There’s a blanket of roses that’s draped over the Derby winner–oh, and there are hats. As much as the Derby and the upcoming races that constitute the Triple Crown are about any sort of tradition, they are also high fashion events with an emphasis on fancy headdresses.

Our relationship with headdresses is intrinsically linked to status and identities. From crowns to wraps to baseball caps, headdresses signify the status and standing of the wearer as they are attached to the face, a primary focal point on the body. They do more than provide protection from the elements: they convey mood and provide signals for social interaction. They can help us manipulate our presentation of self. The tradition of Derby hats isn’t excluded from this experience.

While there is little physical evidence of hats in the archaeological records, Neolithic cave paintings at Tassili, Algeria (c. 8000 – 4000 BCE) and Mesopotamian sculptures (c. 2600 BCE) suggest an origin for women’s hats in a turban-like head wrap. This isn’t a far reaching assumption: Neolithic, Bronze and Iron-age peoples in Europe sewed leather and spun and wove wool for clothing, so it’s also possible that they made themselves protective headgear such as caps and hoods. The 1944 discovery of a man’s body in Tollund Bog near Viborg, Denmark adds weight to this inference. Believed to be a chieftain, Tollund Man had been preserved for almost 2000 years wearing a pointed cap sewn from several pieces of leather. it’s vaguely Phrygian in nature, although it seems adapted to the region with fur inside and leather straps that fastened under his chin.

As the Romans moved into Britain, we’re able to draw upon their records to at least gain a better sense of the decorative practices of the residents of this land. For example, historian Pomponius Mela described the blue woad dying practices of the Picti and Julius Caesar described the long flowing hair and grooming practices of the Britons of Kent and Sussex. His description is supported by a bust of British chieftain Caractacus sporting thick, flowing hair and a mustache. Anglo-saxon women, it seems, were inclined to veils, with two main styles being reported: one had a hole to fit the face with a crown-type anchor to hold it in place, and the other was rectangular, falling down the back, and also held in place by a metal band of some sort. These examples are significant because they tell us that people were engaged in decorative performances that involved the manipulation of the face in subtler ways than are permitted by the use of masks.

Of course, Roman documents also give us detailed insights into military headdresses of the peoples they encountered. While these headdresses served a functional role of protection, they also denoted rank and other predilections. For example Roman captains wore helmets that differed from the standard gladiatorial helmet. And the helmet of the Emperor Constantine bore the Christogram Chi-ro representing his faith and allegiance. Viking-style helmets included prominent horns, which gave them a superficial likeness to the headdresses of Sumerians and other Middle Eastern peoples. The purpose of these horns in this case, however, was less religious and more about building oneself up in battle–essentially creating a fearsome visage as you bore down on the enemy. Of course, the horns were probably helpful in deflecting blows from the enemy as well.

The pattern that’s emerging here is that headdresses are particular to people. Hats that merely provide protection from the elements were really reserved for laborers and those of the lower classes. For anyone with means or anyone who holds a recognizable position of power within society, what you have on your head matters.

Fast forward to the fifteenth century and we find a burgeoning sense of self-awareness marked by the Renaissance. The longevity of representation through portraits becomes something that people become more aware of and is in part stimulated by overseas trade and the growing wealth of the middle class. Women’s fashion in particular starts to become more elaborate. During this time, the templette became popular: while styles could vary, the idea was that a singular box-like projection sits on the head and is covered by a decorated drape. The templettes could be elaborately decorated with jewels and gold depending on the wearer’s station. No doubt, these headdresses were heavy, but they represent a trend in headdresses moving upward leading to more horned styles, as well as the more familiar steeple hat that are known to us from medieval fairy tales. This upward shift is physical but also represents a social and psychological reaching for standing. The higher the headpiece, the more materials required for its construction and the more expensive it becomes. While fashion-conscious individuals were constantly seeking ways to replicate the styles of the time, this continual build up of materials creates a monetary separation between the real articles and replicas.

Portrait of Mary II of England in a fontange headdress (lace stiffened with wire). CC.

In the sixteenth-century, hats and headdress fashion were largely influenced by court trends. Head pieces were adorned with ribbons and flowers and feather plumes. And they continued their upward climb. The fontange gained popularity. This style combined muslin, lace and ribbons built up around a wired base to generate an architectural feat. Not to be outdone, men’s hats were also evolving: they were trimmed with fur, included feathers, brooches, plaques and crests. Allegiance to causes and displays of favor were managed with tokens that were included in hat itself. It’s around this time that “hat honor” begins to emerge as well–a code of behavior regarding the wearing of hats and the formal recognition of an individual’s status.

The simplest way to explain “hat honor” is the removal of one’s hat in the presence of someone socially superior to you or as a means of showing courtesy. Kings are the prime example of this: subjects bared their heads int he presence of a monarch, unless you were an ambassador from a foreign king in which case you were not required to pay tribute in this way. This practice found its way down the social tiers. Young men deferred to older men. And not only did you have to remove your hat, but how you removed your hat mattered– it should be a graceful fluid motion. (Conversely, not removing your hat was then a sign of dissent, and could cause grave insult.) Appearing hatless sent a social message of deference and station. The expression “hat in hand,” for example, denotes an individual who has been stripped of power and status in the context of requesting a (usually monetary) favor from someone else. By removing one’s hat, you’re exposing your vulnerabilities. There is no manipulation of self and no claiming status; with hat in hand, literally or figuratively, you’re laid bare for critical assessment.

While we are not quite as hat-crazed in the twenty-first century, many of these traditions relating to hats and to hat honor have survived. It’s common practice to remove one’s had during the singing of the national anthem, while in Church, or while attending a funeral. Though for certain religious groups, keeping one’s head covered is actually viewed as a sign of deference. Derby hats hearken back to the tradition of elaborate displays of wealth and standing. The more elaborate, the more fanciful, the more ridiculous the adornment, the more attention you attract and the greater your standing. Thoroughbred racing, which in particular has been tied to the upper classes given the costs associated with owning and training Thoroughbreds, seems to be an event where monetary classes do assert themselves. There are different ticketed areas that have access to different experiences from seating to food. And while his may be true of many sporting events, it seems more pronounced at the Triple Crown venues where General Admission differs from access to the Grandstand, which differs from Reserved and Box seating. And the way you dress may impact your ability to gain access to certain parts of the venue. For example, at Belmont in New York, shorts and jeans are generally not permitted with other requirements ranging from jackets to collared shirts to ties to dresses being required for access to specific areas of the venue

Derby hats, and indeed the fashion throughout the Triple Crown events, are an extension of this display. They help assert that the wearer has a right to be where she is. They contribute to a normative experience that trickles beyond the paddock and clubhouse as various attendees strive to emulate the experience of status.

Amphlett, Hilda (2012). Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear. Dover Publications.
Blum, Dills (1993). “Ahead of Fashion: Hats of the 20th Century,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 89(377/378): 4-48.
Corfield, Penelope (1989). “Dress for Deference and Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honor,” Costume (23): 64-79.
Jaegar, William (2004). “Status Seeking and Social Welfare: Is there Virtue in Vanity?” Social Science Quarterly, 85(2): 361-379.

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