While the Steeplechase is a premiere sporting event in Charleston, race-day fashion is just as important as the race itself.  The Steeplechase of Charleston is THE event to show off your bold style in a creative and fun way, while enjoying the history and tradition of horse racing in Charleston.

Origins of Horse Racing Fashion

Kings were the original horse owners, so horse racing is fittingly nicknamed the Sport of Kings. Considerable wealth was required to afford horses and pay people to ride them. The prestigious sporting event of horse racing draws in a highly fashionable crowd.

The tradition of wearing hats at horse races is a tradition that comes from both British and Southern cultures. It was started by the founder of the Kentucky Derby. Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., modeled the race after European racing events.

Previously, American racetracks were associated with immorality and vices because of the drinking and gambling.  Clark wanted to change this perception and make the race more of a society event that the upper-class would not want to miss.  In order to do this, he made full-morning dress a requirement for the event.  He recruited high-class women to attract his ideal audience and they began to attend the event wearing dresses, gloves and hats.

The Hat Makes the Outfit

Hats really became noticeably associated with horse racing in the 1960s with the spread of television. The arrival of television crews prompted race-goers to up their headgear game. Women began choosing wilder and more extravagant hats in order to stand out from the crowd.

Though fashion norms began to loosen during this time, hats remained popular at horse racing events. Showing up to a horse race without a hat was considered a major fashion faux-pas, because hats are the statement pieces. Women would coordinate their dresses, shoes, handbags, and even parasols to match their hats.

Royal Style Influence

Many people find inspiration for their race-day hats from the royal family in England. Queen Elizabeth II has gained a faithful following for her race-day headgear. It is estimated that she has worn over 5,000 hats during her reign. At the Royal Ascot Races, people even bet on what color she will choose to wear to opening day.

The hat craze began to dwindle slightly in the 80s and 90s. However, the royal weddings in 2011 and 2018 caused a resurgence of interest. A new generation of Americans was exposed to the work of milliners, women’s hat makers, as well as fascinators.

Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York

Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York on their way to the royal wedding in 2011

Fascinators are headpieces ‘fastened’ to the head by a headband or clip. They have become even more favorable than hats in recent years after the young royals were seen wearing them. Though they are different from wide brim hats and offer no sun protection, fascinators allow the wearer to stand out with their creativity and are a popular choice at horse races.

Style Tips 

The hats are not just for women! Men often don fedoras and boating-style hats to the steeplechase.  In addition to hats, seer-sucker suits, braces, and bow ties remain popular fashion choices for men. If you favor a more casual look, pastel-colored polo shirts and khakis are good options.

Women typically wear brightly-colored sundresses and skirts. If you choose to wear a patterned garment, be sure it will not clash with your hat. As for footwear, wear comfortable shoes to navigate the grassy terrain.

One thing is for sure, Steeplechase of Charleston attendees will be bringing their unique, Southern style to the 2019 event.