Crowning Glory: Derby-Inspired Hats We Love

Derby-inspired hats can be shown off at far more places than just the races.

Lady wearing a Kentucky Derby-style hat
Purple Saucer Hatinator from the milliner’s private collection. Similar hats run $300. Modeled by Maddy Jones // Dress courtesy of The Holiday // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Every first Saturday in May, hordes of spectators flock to the Kentucky Derby, dressed to the nines in varying shades of vibrant and subdued pastels. Hats, ranging from diminutive to galactic, perch atop coifed tresses, a visual display of each racegoer’s panache. “You can wear any kind of hat to the Derby,” says Valerie Vernon Case, local milliner and owner of Rua Flores Inspired Hats. “But typically, the hats are made in spring or summer colors.” 

Wearing hats to the Derby has been a tradition since the race’s 1875 inception. Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., Kentucky Derby founder, drew inspiration from European racing events at which women were seen wearing genteel and elegant hats. While the size of the hat was initially linked with fortune — the larger the luckier — nowadays it comes down to the individual’s personality and comfort level. 

Although the Port City is 600 miles away from Churchill Downs, Southern belles know that hats and head accessories can be worn to far more occasions than just Derby-watching soirees. Garden parties, weddings, christenings and bridal showers are just a few additional suggestions. And, of course, anything Mardi Gras related. Case adds, “I even made a hat for a woman to wear to her sister’s funeral — her sister was a hat fanatic.” 

Case has been making custom hats in Mobile for three years, creating everything from button hats to fascinators, from hatinators to full hats. And the pandemic has not slowed her production or creativity. “I’ve taken 30 hours of online classes, learning from milliners in Ireland, England, Australia and France.” Hearing that, it appears the world can agree on at least one thing: Hats are a fun way to accessorize. And Case agrees. “It’s amazing the impact a hat or head accessory has on an outfit.”

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A “fascinator” is a light and decorative accessory that fastens to the head with a clip, comb or headband. Also attached with a band, a “hatinator” is larger and gives the impression of a full hat. Hats are generally large and brimmed and sit directly on the head. 

Crinoline — stiff fabric made of polyester | Jinsin — mix of straw and polyester thread
Parasisal — finely woven sisal plant fibers | Sinamay — woven abaca tree fibers

Want to see more? Valerie Vernon Case’s hats will be on display at downtown Mobile’s Sophiella Gallery, Friday, May 14, during LODA Artwalk.

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