Standlee Barn Bulletin

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Women’s Fashion at the Horse Races

Women’s Fashion at the Horse Races

That was then

Women’s fashion at horse races emerged in the late 1800s at European racetracks such as France’s Auteuil, Longchamp and Chantilly. The races provided a profitable venue for designers to showcase and sell their custom clothing creations to a mass audience of well-to-do women, keen to be seen.

Courtiers would hire models to wear their latest creations at racing events to draw women’s attention, create media buzz and get feedback as to popular styles preferred by clientele.

Racetrack “runways” influenced modern fashion industry development and established Paris as the world’s fashion capital.

Early racetrack fashion eschewed function for status and style. Long dresses were most commonly worn with extensive embellishments such as lace, embroidery, pintucks, ruffles, and ribbons. Accessories included long gloves and ornately adorned hats with large brims.

Historic Kentucky Derby Photo
Photo Credit: FOTO: FORTEPAN/ Magyar Bálint

Coming to America

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. is credited with bringing European-influenced horse race fashion to the United States.

After attending and being inspired by Derby races in England and France’s Grand Prix de Paris in 1872, Clark spearheaded the opening of Churchill Downs, near Lexington, KY, and the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Clark’s vision for The Kentucky Derby was that of an elite social gathering much like England’s esteemed Epsom Derby, with attendees clad in attractive formal attire, including beautiful hats. His goal was to transform American horse racing tracks’ focus from drinking and gambling and elevate it to a chic fashion-forward celebration. Consequently, the dress code of “full morning dress” was adopted for women and men attending Churchill Downs’ races.

To bolster attendance, Clark and his wife invited wealthy stylish Louisville women to picnic with like-minded friends at the races. His brilliant ploy worked. The first Kentucky Derby propelled American racetracks into the style stratosphere with men and women embracing the European inspired race dress code.

Fast forward to the 1960s when wearing hats fell out of vogue in mainstream fashion, with the exception of the Kentucky Derby. Swinging 60s horse racing fashion galloped in with elevated hat designs, commanding center stage. ‘Chapeau’ (French for hat or another covering for the head) styles morphed to more extravagant, intricate, playful and avant-garde designs flaunting flamboyant colors and wider brims.

This is now

Throughout the world, the celebration of women’s fashion at horse races continues today, including Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby. Typical Derby attire includes sundresses, suits, separates, and even jumpsuits in hues that range from Easter egg pastels to intense brights.

The Run for the Roses hat fashions continues to reign supreme with everything from chic and sophisticated to humorous and eccentric.

Women watching the Kentucky Derby

Below are some horse racing fashion videos showcasing current styles. We think Col. Clark would approve and be delighted to know his Kentucky Derby fashion celebration continues to thrive in modern times!

Race Day Best Dressed Ladies – Fashions on the Field Behind the Scenes

An inspiring behind-the-scenes peek as ladies vie for the title “best dressed” at a race racing competition.

What to Wear to the Races // 8 Summer Occasionwear Dresses | Fashion Mumblr

A race day what-to-wear dress guide by Fashion Mumblr, one of YouTube’s most popular fashion influencers.

Standlee Forage at the Races

Racehorse trainers nationwide choose Standlee Forage bagged forage like Premium Alfalfa Cubes and/or Premium Alfalfa/Timothy Cubes to support their horses’ health, performance and well-being.

They especially appreciate the alfalfa-based bagged forage benefits in supporting gastric ulcer prevention and a healthy respiratory system.

For help choosing the appropriate Standlee Forage for your horse’s needs, use our handy Forage Finder.

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