Dressed For the Derby
Writer / Todd Calvert
On the first Saturday in May, you may not have the winning horse, but one thing is for sure: You must have the perfect dress and hat. And, don’t forget the shoes. It will no doubt be a busy weekend full of brunches, mint juleps, long days racing and then dinner and dancing. While comfort for a long day at the track is a must, you will no doubt want to be spectacular from dawn to dusk. Whether you are headed to an elegant party with friends or ready to live like a rock star with the Barnstables and the Browns, the weekend is bound to be full of frustrating fashion choices, along with a lot of walking, standing and posing for selfies in front of the Winner’s Circle.
From the days when Sug Schusterman and Mary Stone reined Queens of the Season, to the newer socialite incarnation of Tonya Abeln, Sarah Ritter Mitchel and Karen LaClare Casi, the native ladies of Louisville have consistently out-shown the out-of-town crowd in dress. Gone are the days when the Derby weekend was a long and continuous garden party full of tailored Chanel skirt suits. Today’s Kentucky Derby is a mixture of va va voom daytime cocktail attire, daring and sexy strapless shift dresses in bold prints, and often items that will never again see the light of day. All of this is of course led by First Lady of the Derby, and wife of Churchill Downs CEO, Julia Carstanjen leading the pack like a New York runway model.
Throughout the years, Churchill Downs has seen it all. So, whatever you do, don’t think you will be a first. From the outlandish to the sheer elegant, it has all been done before.
The local fashion market has become downright artisanal when it comes to millinery choices, with Kentucky hat makers all competing for the best attire for your head. Local artisan Jenny Gerst Pheanenstiel, chief creator and owner of Forme Millinary, has created some of the most noteworthy Derby and Oaks creations for celebrities and royalty from around the world. Dee’s Craft’s will allow you to create your own floral and feathery over the top headgear. Countless boutiques such as Rodeo Drive and Peacock will offer beautiful headpieces, and Rode’s For Him & Her will host spectacular trunk shows just for the head. Of course, this alone begs the age-old question: Do you start with the dress or the hat? You choose.
As spring approaches, you probably are already thinking about the perfect look for you for Louisville’s most important social occasion. You probably started perusing Vogue and Marie Clair weeks ago wondering, where exactly, is the hemline this season? Well, that is a good question, with a complicated answer. The short answer is that hemlines in high fashion are longer, below the knee. In popular fashion, the trend has yet to catch up in this hamlet. So, if you are not looking to stand out in a sleek and elegant couture look, you will be comfortable in the dress that falls 3” above the knee. If you want the look of high fashion, choose a dress that falls 2-3” below the knee — or longer, if you dare. Just don’t choose a maxi.
Thanks to Hillary Clinton, First Lady Melania Trump and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, the pantsuit is au currant once again. Every major designer has offered very sleek – and sexy versions of Katherine Hepburn’s finest. Appropriate for the day, white is seen in every collection, with the ever-present black running a photo finish. The fashion-forward can expect a sea of sleek and feminine pantsuits this season. Accessorize with a belt, a little color and voila. Finite.
WELCOME BACK TO THE 80’s!
Who doesn’t appreciate a good Joan Collins moment? Wide shoulders and cinched waists will define this Derby season. Be bold, be exciting. Brilliant metallic fabrics, bold prints, color block and big jewelry should be at the forefront of every ensemble seen because the idea is to be seen and stand out. A wide-brimmed portrait hat will finish this look and make you princess for the day.
SPRING SHOWERS BRING MAY FLOWERS
There is only one certainty on Derby Day: The weather is uncertain. The smart bet is always going to be to have rain gear ready and an alternative outfit for cold temperatures. If you chose, there are some wonderful pashminas that will work perfectly, and fashionably, over your chosen dress for the chilly morning hours that can be removed as the day grows warmer. In the event that the day is torrentially wet, there are wonderful clear overlays that can be worn and discarded at the track.
UNBRIDLED NIGHT OF FUN
Derby Season is not complete without attending one of the many black-tie balls that Louisville plays host to, filled with Hollywood royalty and the city’s business elite. Cyble and Patricia Barnstable Brown, along with Tonya York Dees and former U of L star Junior Bridgeman, have made social and philanthropic careers of hosting the most stunning of these events. Complete with over-the-top entertainment, these glittering events have become all night fun-a-thons.
After paying thousands of dollars for your special ticket to these star-studded occasions, you will certainly want to play and look the part in your own spectacular style. Glasscock and Rode’s will gladly outfit your style. Before you get sticker shock, understand that some of these gowns might cost as much as the tickets. Whether you choose the subtle elegance of Carolina Herrera or a star-spangled Versace, a slinky Trina Turk or a Christian Siriano, you might spend as little as $300 or as much as $8,000.
When choosing the gown, you may be drawn to the glittering and jewel-encrusted Tony Bowls, or the flowing and lace embellished Oscar de la Renta. Leg slits are going to be high, and full-skirted ball gowns are very popular. KFC may have the market on chicken, but you are free to show your own thigh this season. Don’t be afraid to show some décolletage. The designers were not, so push ‘em up and shove the girls out. Just make sure to offset the look with some stunning signature jewelry so that the guys have something else to look at. If you are of the most avant-garde genre, go ahead and choose a lady’s tuxedo with wide leg or pencil pants and let the fun begin.
THE COBBLER DIDN’T KNOW COBBLESTONES
Those sexy strappy 5” high sandals, well, they look great in Vogue, right? But try wearing them while traversing the cobblestones of Churchill Downs. You will wonder which cobbler invented them, I hear. Try a simple 2-4” heal. You will appreciate that advice, even if you are a dozen Woodford Reserves into the day. You might want to also pack a pair of Teva flip flops or something similar to end your day at the track.
DO MEN DARE?
Alright, ladies: Men are good for something besides carrying the betting cash and your Amex Black Card. They can look pretty spiffy themselves!. On Derby day, they can strut their stuff like a peacock too. Noted interior designer and esquire-extraordinaire Lee Robinson will surely wear the brightest Etro jacket that he can find, while others will sport the more subdued Armani for that Italian flair. Regardless of the designer, men are encouraged to find their own “inner me” on Derby day and express themselves.
Bright ties and pocket squares will always add a unique and sophisticated touch to the ordinary jacket. A pair of slim pants can modernize a mundane business jacket. For the ultimate daring ensemble, be bold with prints and plaids but be careful of the cliché Madras. The stylish gents at Rode’s For Him can help those that are unsure of their choices, and guide you to a jacket the Duke of Windsor would have been enviable of.