Coif to the Races
May means different things to different people. For some, especially those located in RVA, it’s the one month that actually feels like spring until humidity and hellfire rain down upon us once again. For others, it’s the time to hit the garden, have a wedding, walk to a brewery or simply enjoy an outside morning coffee on the porch. For the thoughtful among us, there are reflections on the month’s origin, and that the Romans called the month Maius after the Greek God Maia who was known for growth and boldness in nature and in business (I like her style).
For me, May means hats. Large, funny hats. Strike that, large stylish hats…if stylish can be used to explain something odd that people wear because other people are wearing them too, and enough of them get together so the unusual magically transforms into the fashionable. Why the interest in humongous headgear? Hang on to the reins baby, I’m heading to my first Kentucky Derby.
I watch the Super Bowl every year, but I’m one of those people who have no idea who’s playing until the week before the game. I’m there admittedly for the commercials and halftime show. When it comes to watching the Kentucky Derby, I like the ponies, appreciate a good mint julep, but I’m really there for the headgear.
The first Kentucky Derby took place in 1875 on May 17th. As the event gained popularity, the attendees looked to British and French racing traditions and copied the fashions the celebrants were wearing. If my history doesn’t fail me, I believe one of the first Derby organizers started the hat craze with the immortal words, “Look y’all, that there lady’s wearing something that looks like a boa constrictor tried to swallow a peacock. Wonder if it comes in a size 7?”
The main organizers of the first Kentucky Derby were Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. and his wife, Mary. Prior to the first run they traveled through England and France visiting horse races, and the elaborate attire worn by the spectators made quite the impression. So much so that once Mary, a precursor to online influencers, assembled some over the top outfits and rode about town in an open carriage to encourage others to dress in a similar fashion for the race. Most novel ideas meet, or crash, at the intersection of Bold and Crazy and her approach was a smashing success.
Over the years, the competition became more intense on and off the track. Horses got faster, purses became larger, and hats became weapons of social dominance. Larger and larger they grew, their only limits were the force of gravity and their designer’s imagination.
And then came the facinator. Fascinators began as small head accessories, usually a hidden comb or clip holding an adornment. This modest piece started with the modest name of clip-hat. That changed in the 1950’s when an American designer name John P. John started making veil clip-hats to adorn beehive hairdos, and termed them fascinators. Thus rebranded, fascinators grew in popularity and use. In the late 1970’s Mr. John pushed the industry even further by forgoing feather and lace and designing whimsical and outrageous fascinators to go with the times, and the modern fascinator was born. With the evolution and changes, it’s sometimes hard to determine when a hat is just a hat and not a fascinator. The main difference is that fascinators are generally smaller than a hat, and do not have a brim.
Embracing this long tradition, hat in hand I’m leaving for Louisville on Wednesday. Actually, the hat is going to be waiting for me. Turns out shipping it there was a better option than checking an additional suitcase…just for the hat. Some believe that the bigger the hat, the more luck you’ll have at the races. Let’s just say this year, I’m going to be very, very, very lucky.