The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in the United States. This famous horse race began after Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of the famous explorer William Clark, visited England's Epsom Derby in 1872. He fell in love with the atmosphere of the races, with its vibrant clothing and bubbling social scene. He wanted to bring that type of event back to his home state of Kentucky. So he returned and organized the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. 

the first Kentucky Derby took place on May 17 in 1875 at The Churchill Downs Racetrack

The race has been held every year since, even during major historical events like the Great Depression, the First and Second World Wars and the latest global pandemic. First a mainstay of southern culture, its fame and allure have spread to the rest of the United States and around the world. Today, you can find celebrities like Tom Brady, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and even Queen Elizabeth II attending the annual race on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs race track. 

There are many traditions tied to the derby. You might see spectators with a tear in their eye when "My Old Kentucky Home" plays. Or you might enjoy the traditional drink of the race, the mint julep. But one of the most famous traditions of the Kentucky Derby is the incredible fashion.

A Fashion Event as Much as a Race

The Kentucky Derby has become as much a fashion event as it is an important horse race. People from around the world tune in to see who is wearing what at the races, choices that could end up inspiring fashion in the year to come. Spring pastels, flowing dresses, and bold suits are all part of the show, but nothing can beat the amazing hats. 

Whether you are headed to the races yourself or just love the looks, the Kentucky Derby is a great place to look to for fashion inspiration. Learn more about the rules, traditions, and what's likely to be the hottest Kentucky Derby trends in 2022. 

The Kentucky Derby Style

Fashion has always been an important part of the Kentucky Derby. Founder Clark was concerned women wouldn't want to attend the races when they started in the late 1800s because of their association with drinking and gambling. His wife suggested telling women to use the races as an excuse to dress up and picnic with their friends, and the idea took off. The races started in the Edwardian era when corsets and bustles were all the rage. During this time, hats signified a lady's status in society. The bigger, the better. That's become a time-honored tradition of the races that is still observed today. 

Kentucky Derby Dress Code

For most attendees of the Kentucky Derby, there is no formal dress code to follow. There is only an official dress code if you are in premium areas such as the Derby Room, the Turf Club, and Millionaires Row. These areas require business casual or casual attire, including jackets and collared shirts for men and dresses or pantsuits for women. You are free to wear whatever you want in other areas of Churchill Downs, but the race track reserves the right to deny someone entry based on their clothing choices. Jeans, crop tops, tennis shoes, and torn clothing are generally frowned on. After all, getting dressed up is part of the fun of attending the race.

Kentucky Derby Outfits

Kentucky Derby outfit ideas men and women

Picking out the perfect Kentucky Derby outfit is no small task. You'll want to make sure your outfit follows the traditions of the races and looks amazing on you. Thankfully, Kentucky weather in May is generally mild, ranging from 70 to 78°F, so you shouldn't need much of a jacket. Rain isn't uncommon, though. Remember that the races will run rain or shine, too, so you'll need to plan for the weather (or at least know where to find shelter, fast!). 

Need some inspiration about what to wear for the 2022 Kentucky Derby? Here are some ideas to get you started. 

Kentucky Derby Outfits for Women

When it comes to Kentucky Derby outfits for women, you'll want to look for a dress or pantsuit. If you aren't sure what to wear, stick with pastel colors and floral themes. These are both great for race day and very traditional options for the event. Don't feel like those are your only options, though. The fashion at the Kentucky Derby often pushes boundaries, so feel free to experiment a little, too. Bold colors, monochrome, and unusual dress designs are all welcome here.

Make sure that you have a complete outfit, too. Pick out coordinating accessories such as shoes, bags, and jewelry. And don't forget the most important piece--the hat. That way you'll have the complete look when you step onto the grounds of Churchill Downs. 

Kentucky Derby Dresses 

Most women opt to build their Kentucky Derby look around a dress. Here are three ideas to consider for your next derby outfit:

  • Embrace your inner rockabilly. The fit-and-flare look of a 1950s-style dress is a charming option for race day. Look for pastel colors and big, bold floral prints. Match your shoes and hat to the flowers and you'll have a pulled-together look--and don't forget the pin curls in your hair!
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  • Separates go together. You don't have to wear a dress. Look for sweet lace and floral skirts and tops that you can repurpose in separate outfits later on. Or go for a finely cut women's suit. These were actually a popular choice at the races in the 1960s during the rise of the feminist movement. 
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  • Don't shy away from solids. Traditionally, most dresses you'll see at the Kentucky Derby are pastels and floral patterns. But there is no rule that you can't go with a gorgeous dress in a solid color. It's a trend increasingly embraced in the last several years, and one to consider if you want to leave room for your hat to be the star of the show. 
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Looking for more inspiration about what to wear? Check out outfits worn in recent years by actress Shailene Woodley, singer Tori Kelly, and Tina Knowles.

Kentucky Derby Men's Attire

Men aren't left out of the fun when it comes to Kentucky Derby fashion. Quite the contrary! Men have been joining in the fashion parade for decades at the Kentucky Derby. You'll see men showing off their own take on derby fashion with pastel suits in unexpected prints and their own fantastic accessories. 

If you are looking for men's attire to wear to this year's derby, consider: 

  • Pick a pop of color. A suit is always a good idea, but don't feel like you have to go for a traditional navy or gray. Consider a modern men's suit in pastel pink for something that's still on point but exudes personality. 
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  • Tie in your personality. If you aren't ready for a pink suit, go with something more traditional, like an ashy blue slim fit suit. But then take it up a notch by picking out a tie fit for the day. Or ditch the tie and opt for a cool bow tie instead. 
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  • Pack a punch in patterns. A good suit can be so much more than a solid color. Look for men's suits in fun patterns like paisley or floral prints. These can be stand-out pieces, so if you choose this bold option, keep your accessories simple. Choose solid-colored hats and shoes in neutral colors.
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Kentucky Derby Hats

Your hat is the most important fashion choice you'll make when going to the Kentucky Derby. This is where you can go as big and bold as you want, and any hat is acceptable at the race. Show off your fedora, oversized sun hat, fascinators, or flat caps. Just make sure it's comfortable to wear and securely fastened. It can be windy on race day!

Kentucky Derby Hats for Women

Want to keep it small and tasteful? Opt for a fascinator. These are gorgeous headpieces that are smaller than a hat and more ornate than a standard headband. They usually sit slightly to the side and front of the head and have tulle, feathers, ribbons, and other decorative elements. You'll find them in a huge variety of colors and styles, too, so it won't be difficult to find one to match your outfit.

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If you want to throw caution to the wind, go big and bold with a broad-brimmed sunhat. This can be an especially helpful choice if the weather is going to be particularly hot on race day. The brim will help keep the sun off your face and out of your eyes. It also leaves space for lots of fashionable drama.

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Look for wide-brimmed hats with layers of organza, big beautiful flowers, and feathers. It was once even fashionable to wear stuffed birds on your Kentucky Derby hat. If you are feeling especially bold, you can try to bring back that trend this year.

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Kentucky Derby Hats for Men

Men should get in on the fun of picking out a hat for the Kentucky Derby, too. In recent years, it's become very fashionable for men's hats to be as big and bold as their female counterparts. Check out ice skater Johnny Weir's recent Kentucky Derby hat choices for a dose of inspiration. 

If you are wearing a bright or bold suit, though, it may be best to stick to a traditional hat. Choose a straw fedora with a classic ribbon detail for something that's not only derby appropriate, but great for the rest of summer, too.

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A straw boater is a great choice, too, inspired by the southern fashion of yesteryear. Hats with bold patterns are a fun option if you need to jazz up a traditional suit.

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Or you can embrace unisex fashion and opt for a coordination fascinator, instead. 

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While the race still took place in 2020, it had to move from its traditional spot on the first Saturday in May to a later date in September. Organizers originally planned to allow a limited number of spectators to watch the race. As Covid-19 cased spiked in the Louisville area, though, they made the decision to run the race without any spectators at all. Organizers welcomed spectators back in 2021, but at a reduced attendance of just over 50,000 people.

That means Kentucky Derby fans have been largely missing out on their favorite fashion event for two years. There are unlikely to be many restrictions this year, so it's reasonable to expect the crowd to reach its maximum number of 150,000. Because of this, you can expect the fashion of the 2022 Kentucky Derby to be bolder and better than ever this year. The event fans have had years now to plan their outfits, invest in the hottest hats, and plan their outfits down to the last detail. Watch out for: 

  • Fashion that bends the rules of business casual. Many offices have done away with dress codes during the pandemic, and more people are embracing comfy over couture. Look for that to blend into the Kentucky Derby, with more casual fabrics and shoe choices popping up. 
  • Hats that are bigger and better than ever. People have had more time than ever to pick out the perfect hat for the Kentucky Derby. Look for hats that push the boundaries with size, colors, and personalized touches that set them apart. 
  • Bolder, brighter color palettes. Pastel will be a mainstay of the Kentucky Derby but look for bright and bolder fashion choices this year. This is in line with the color palettes seen on the runways for 2022. People are anxious to say goodbye to winter and burst into warmer weather, and this year's color choices will reflect that enthusiasm.  

Are you attending the Kentucky Derby this year? Or headed to a Kentucky Derby party? We hope this guide has been helpful for you to decide what you'll be wearing to the hottest sartorial event of the spring. 

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