The Kentucky Derby is a cultural event that traditionally represents excellence, wealth, status, strategic horse-betting, and, unfortunately, an “old boys club,” however, Black women are flipping old-age traditions on its head at the historic Churchill Downs by inserting themselves in a conversation that historically excluded their presence. While few of us were at the posh First Turn Club event space at the 149th Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, we proudly showed up and out with our fabulous and colorful hats and fascinators, a custom honored since 1875. It’s been said that no hat is too outlandish or ridiculous at Derby. The sentiment rings true, as you’ll find everything from a sea of wide-brimmed hats with feathers to embellished fascinators with sequins, and all styles are equally respected and beloved.
More importantly, though, Black women are touting these hats with pride and understanding of where they are and the chilling history that preceded them. These hats highlight a sense of understanding that we are no longer on the fringes of society, that we belong at Churchill Downs too. Aside from the pomp and circumstance of the hats, it can also be a lucrative business for Black-owned milliners who take time to craft unique creations each year for Derby season—small businesses like Tony Leon Designs and Big Day Hat Design outfit Black women yearly for the event.
“The Derby culture is hat culture that includes men and women regardless of income. You’ll find a Derby hat at a backyard barbecue on Derby weekend, or you’ll see them at the First Turn Club or millionaires row at ChurchillDowns. As a Black woman, I at to show my presence. The hat designs are a way of expressing our presence. The bigger, the better. We are here!” says Cecily Unseld, a Louisville, Kentucky native and registered nurse to ESSENCE.
She continues, “There is a history of exclusion with the Kentucky Derby. I think it’s imperative to show up and stand proudly, as we are a part of the Kentucky Derby history and are supposed to be here.”
With that said, see some fabulous Black women and their hats at the 149th Kentucky Derby.
Saddiqua Reynolds and Cecily and Daryle Unseld
Nicole Yates, Cecily Unseld, and Tracy Davis
Kellie Stallard, Yvette Gentry, and Nicole Yates
Nicole Yates and Cheryl Peterson Guess
ESSENCE Lifestyle Editor, Dominique Fluker