The Kentucky Derby isn't just about horse racing. People travel to Churchill Downs for the atmosphere and experience of a one-of-a-kind sporting event, one of the oldest in America -- a throwback, in some ways, to a more antiquated time.
People dress up. They drink mint juleps -- a special indulgence you never see but for one day a year. And, of course, they wear hats. Not just any hat, either. Audacious, colorful, nonsensical hats that sometimes look more like a float in a parade.
To the average TV viewer, these hats all belong to the same breed. But the styles and designs of these hats is slightly more nuanced, often revealing a little bit of where the hat-bearer stands in the social castes of the Kentucky Derby crowd.
In particular, there are three broad categories these hats get lumped into -- here they are.
The Peasants Stuck In General Admission
Peasant is a relative term, since the best seats at the Kentucky Derby can approach $5,000 a head. Even the cheapest seats come in at a cool $65, so in a technical sense, you won't find any true peasants at Churchill Downs. But in the context of the Derby itself, the General Admission seating is where the least wealthy fans sit.
Here you'll find some of the more jaw-dropping hats, including a lot of wacky homemade creations. With cheaper ticket prices comes the liberty to go as bold and wild as you want, and with little recourse -- it's not as if the bourgeoisie can push you even further down the social ranks. When you see Derby-goers wearing absurd creations draped in, say, colorful dolls and hot glue, you can reasonably assume they're sitting in GA.
The Elegant-But-Boring Crowd
Of course this is how the Derby's middle class adapts: Well, we don't want to look like the General Admission crowd. And so the fans who have shelled out for reserved seats will often sport a toned-down look: The hats are smaller, the colors not quite as bold, the designs not quite as WTF.
Custom-made hats will be more common here -- lower-end options can start at around $300 -- and nobody's really here to draw attention to themselves. Hats will still have the traditional broad brims, but they'll be toned down in an effort to blend in with the wealthier crowd.
The Jerks On Millionaire's Row
Oh, the middle-class fans must be pissed. They traded fun for fancy and the upper-class had to go and ruin everything. Because while some fans seated in the first three rows of the stadium will sport an elegant-but-unassuming hat reflecting their higher social status, other fans feel so far above the traditional social hierarchy that they're comfortable going just as bold and brave as the peasant crowd.
In other words, it's hard to peg someone seated in this section based on their hat alone. You'll see a mix, with some attendees opting for fashion-forward and others letting their freak flag fly. When in doubt, you can probably pick out the people seated in Millionaire's Row based off facial recognition: Actors, athletes and other celebrities often buy their way into these primo seats.
The only drawback to sitting in Millionaire's Row: Unlike much of the rest of the stadium, the seats aren't covered in the event of rain. Better hope that hat's water-resistant.