Do You Have To Wear A Hat To The Kentucky Derby? The Rules Are Surprisingly Flexible

On May 6 and 7, 2016, the most important day in American horse racing will be upon us. That's right, the 2016 Kentucky Derby is about to go down, and that means that the demand for elaborate headwear is about to go way, way up. There's no limit to the kind of headgear you can wear to the event, and in many respects, the more elaborate hat, the better.

For Derby devotees, the event marks the chance to display an eye for Southern-inspired fashion amongst thousands of well-tailored, Mint Julep-sipping peers. The sartorial highlight of the event is, of course, the hats. The concept of bringing expert millinery to the races is a byproduct of the Kentucky Derby's ultimate inspiration, the Royal Ascot. That race mandates full morning dress for men, and hats for women, requiring that all who enter be in their absolute finest. In other words, chapeau game strong. When the Derby started in 1875, hats were very much a part of high-fashion, and therefore required at Louisville's Churchill Downs Racetrack's earliest races.

But while hats are still mandatory at the Ascot, what about the Kentucky Derby today? The race's website provides some suggestions for women's attire, but do you have to wear a hat to the Kentucky Derby?

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Here's what the official Kentucky Derby website says.

Wearing a hat to the Kentucky Derby is believed to bear good luck! The long-established fashion was started by the women, however, over the last few years, many men have taken part in the tradition as well. Wearing a hat is much like getting into costume, you might be pleasantly surprised to see what type of character you become. From the fantastic to the sublime, there are no rules or limits.
Within the seated sections of Churchill Downs, you will find hats of elegance and style. Generally speaking, women wear wide-brimmed, “Southern Belle” inspired Kentucky Derby hats. The hats can be decorated with flowers, feathers, bows, and ribbons of any color to express creativity and individuality.
In the Churchill Downs Infield, hats are a bit more eccentric! You will see hats in all shapes and sizes, as well as some hats exuding humorous themes!
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Notice that nowhere did it say hats are required, though. Here are some supplemental guidelines from the Derby's official event partner, Derby Experiences.

As you can see, there are definitely some rules to think about — but not one mention of the iconic Derby hat. The reason? You don't actually have to wear one. To clarify: You won't be asked to leave if you come to Churchill Downs with your head exposed. But considering the fact that mostly everyone else will be wearing one (and that opportunities to wear oversized, magnificent hats are incredibly rare), well, why wouldn't you?

Image: Derby Experiences (1)