What's in a hat? Milliners tell us why wealthy Kentucky Derby attendees are more than happy to spend hundreds on fancy fascinators and other high-end headgear
Kentucky Derbyis known as an event where attendees place big bets and wear big hats.
- And even this year, as the pandemic has caused most of the event to go virtual, people are still buying hats and holding "Derby Parties" from the comfort of their own homes.
- In interviews with Business Insider, Jenny Pfanenstiel, Master
Millinerat the Formé Millinery in Lousiville, Kentucky, and Christine A. Moore, founder of her eponymous millinery business in New York, explain why their hats are so expensive and how people plan to use them in a pandemic world.
In a normal year, the Kentucky Derby would be a highlight of the social calendar: big hats, big horses, and even bigger bets.
But this year, due to the pandemic, the Derby stadium is only opening up at 14% capacity, meaning most fans will have to enjoy the big racing day at home. Of course, now the only question is — if the big bets and big horses still get their time to shine, what happens to the big hats?
Two hatmakers — Jenny Pfanenstiel, master milliner at the Louisville-based Formé Millinery Hat Shop, and Christine Moore, founder of her eponymous New York City-based millinery — told Business Insider that patrons are still ordering elaborate hats for the big race, even though most will be watching from home.
In fact, Moore says that many clients were talking about throwing their own impromptu gatherings for the big day.
"I would say like Sunday to Monday, all of a sudden we saw an uptick in conversation that people wanted to have a Derby Party, or that they were putting together a Derby party because they weren't going to be going to the race [in person]," Moore told Business Insider on Wednesday.
"It was late in the game. I think it snuck up on a lot of people," she continued. "Even just September in general, but also the realization that the Derby is this week, and it seems so out of place, I think people almost forgot about it."
People are still willing to shell out hundreds for a hat — even if they won't exactly be seen wearing it
The big hats worn to the Kentucky Derby are almost as important as the event itself — the trend is one of the event's mainstays. There are even annual hat contests.
Pfanenstiel, a featured milliner of this year's Derby and the official milliner of the Kentucky Derby Museum, told Business Insider that she has been making hats for 12 years and has been working in Louisville for six. She creates every single hat by scratch, using a technique called "blocking" that dates back over 100 years.
Using the technique, Pfanenstiel molds materials over old wooden hat forms. She is also known for her hand-sculpted hats that she creates over a machine that dates back to the 1800s. She also makes use of vintage embellishments from France from the 1920s and 1930s.
Since all of her hats are one-of-a-kind, the starting price is around $425.
"If you're doing a custom hat, I would say on average, it's in the $500 to $600 range," Pfanenstiel said. "And it can go up depending on the style, the material, and the embellishments."
Many start prepping for their next Kentucky Derby the day after the event has ended. Pfanenstiel says many of her customers use her hats as the starting point for their outfit, or bring in photos, taking style inspiration from "The Great Gatsby" or even "Indiana Jones."
The most unusual request Pfanenstiel has ever received came from Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank, who wanted a shark-themed hat.
"I got a material called Silk Avoca that I get from Australia, and its a very drapey material," Pfanenstiel told Business Insider. "And I got it in light blue watercolor, and I sculpt bolted that into like a wave to look like an ocean wave. To do the shark part of it, I actually took feathers and sculpted them in the shape of a shark fin coming out of the wave. So that was my interpretation of making a shark hat and she loved it."
This year, people are still willing to pay big bucks for their custom, unique hats, and Pfanenstiel says that she has still been receiving requests even as the pandemic continues to sweep through the nation.
Pfanenstiel told Business Insider that people have adjusted slightly in not wanting hats that are as big and bold, but something more comfortable that they can wear from home. Pfanenstiel has also made some timely adjustments to her offerings: now each hat comes with a matching face mask.
"The masks are just as unique as the hats," she said. "The masks are here to stay for a while."
Christine Moore says she is also making face masks to go along with her hats
Moore is also known for creating one-of-a-kind hats, which she says range in price from $500 to $600. She told Business Insider that everything she produces is made to order and that her company often fulfills many special request orders for the Kentucky Derby.
Sometimes, she said, people don't buy their hats until just weeks before the Derby begins, which is supposed to be "part of the fun."
"A lot of people buy their ticket and they buy their box but wait till the last minute [for their hat]," she said. "This year, when they had announced mid-August that they were gonna run the race with 14% of the fans, we saw another uptick in business."
Part of the fun with Kentucky Derby hats is that they are seen at the massive event in front of a large audience. Now, people are prepping to be seen at Derby Parties, according to Moore. Her business is also getting requests for hats and masks from mostly horse owners and breeders, and some members of the media. She says people are now either bringing in an existing hat, asking for a matching mask, or they are buying a completely new mask-hat combo.
Moore says that people right now want to wear ornate masks — and some are even requesting just the mask, forgoing the hat order completely.
"Stuff is still coming in," she said. "But it's not crazy."
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