See & Be Seen: 150 Years of Derby Fashion


Fashion is tightly woven into the fabric of the Kentucky Derby’s history and culture. Since the first spectators arrived at the Louisville Jockey Club in 1875, clothing has transformed this racetrack into a place where status and identity, function and creativity, and beauty and humor may be read in every well-chosen hat and bowtie.

The Derby’s long and well-documented history provides an endless parade of sartorial stories. Some feature the highest couture styles of a period, and some showcase wacky, do-it-yourself assemblages made from found and repurposed materials. But each Derby fashion story can show us how choosing what we wear—especially to a place designed for seeing and being seen, like the racetrack—is so much more than an act of function or necessity.

Richard Thompson Ford, in his book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, explains, “Fashion is a way of communicating ideas, values, and aspirations through clothes. Through our attire, we announce who we are, what we care about, and where we belong—or aspire to belong—in society.”

At the Kentucky Derby, which now attracts over 150,000 people to the gates of Churchill Downs each year, we can see the ensembles of sports-lovers, handicappers, fashionistas, makers, and party animals. These collectively create what journalists have called the Derby’s “kaleidoscope of humanity” and a gathering where people from all walks of life converge on the track to enjoy the spectacle of the Greatest Race.

Exhibit highlights:

  • Thirty-two full mannequins dressed with ensembles ranging from the 1860s to present day
  • Historic fashion artifacts from the Kentucky Derby Museum Permanent Collection, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Filson Historical Society, the Kentucky Science Center, and private lenders
  • Winning ensembles and accessories from the 2023 Derby 150 Fashion Contest
  • Interactive panels with loads of history to explore, through digitized archives, photographs, and ephemera


Interested in a hands-on experience? Check out our Derby Fashion & Hat Workshop on your next visit.