Move over, Animal Kingdom. This year's Preakness front-runner is likely to be the fascinator, at least in the grandstands.
With the royal wedding fresh in people's minds, milliners and the fashion-forward alike predict a change in the hat fashion at Maryland's most famous horse race. Traditional wide-brimmed straw hats adorned with black-eyed Susans could be replaced by fascinators — smaller, show-stopper hats anchored to a headband — or other headpieces similar to those recently worn at Westminster Abbey.
"The royal wedding has definitely been a buzz word," said Keith Pfeffer, manager at Hats In The Belfry, a hat retailer with Baltimore locations in the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. "It's on people's tongues. … People are making a point to look for [fascinators] this year."
Despite the infamous rowdy antics and ultra-casual garb of its infield guests, the Preakness elite tend to be the most conservatively dressed of all the major horse races in this country, according to Christine A. Moore, a New York City milliner whose hats are popular among celebs and racing elite.
"Preakness is just about great hats — middle-of-the-road, design-wise," Moore explained. "That's not bad. That is where the elegance is. In some ways it is a little less feminine, but definitely more graceful."
Of the Triple Crown races, Preakness fashion is most understated, according to Moore.
"It is more conservative and toned-down," Moore explained. "They are more tailored than the Southern belles. At the Kentucky Derby, the sky's the limit."
At New York's Belmont Stakes, fans wear edgier hats and fedoras.
"It reflects the city," Moore said.
With their smaller, playful feel and occasional crazy designs, fascinators will attract a new breed of hat-wearers traditionally turned off by the stodginess typically associated with hats.
"I'm not sure it will last," Moore said. "But it definitely presents more options. People who don't normally wear hats are more likely to wear a headband with a little headpiece."
The size and popularity of the fascinator makes it an attractive choice for Preakness-goers.
"People who wouldn't normally go with a large-brim hat — the fascinators are a way to get that impact. It is an easier hat to wear," he said. "It's also very comfortable to wear in a large event. You don't have to worry about bumping anyone."
Cynthia Stoltz fell in love with the fascinator because of the royal wedding. The Lutherville resident thought it would be the perfect accessory to wear to the Preakness this year.
"I came down here for a fascinator because I missed my invitation to the royal wedding, so I figured that I would wear it to Preakness," said Stoltz, who was shopping at Hats In The Belfry's Fells Point location.
Stoltz picked out a small black fascinator adorned with feathers and a bow. She said she was excited to wear her new purchase to the race and later to an after-race party.
"It's going to be incredible," she said. "I figure that the black will look very good."
Moore was initially surprised that the fascinator became such a big hit — especially in this country.
"Fascinators were always a hard sell for us Americans," Moore said. "They were always reserved for the edgier."
But she intends to capitalize on the trend. Moore, who will be hosting a trunk show at Hats In The Belfry today and Friday, has increased her fascinator stock by 20 percent.
"Hats are still more popular than the fascinator," Moore said. "But I think that people should definitely go with the trend while the trend is current."
As for the more traditional hats, other elements of the royal wedding will reign.
"We are going to sell even more medium-brim, tailored hats," Moore said. "We are going to sell more because of the English influence. Nobody is going to follow the queen's matchy-matchy feel. There will be more of the angular line."
Fascinators and other tailored hats have been extremely popular at The Boulevard Boutique at DeBois Textiles. In the past two weeks, customers have been flocking to the vintage warehouse's hat selection to try on fascinators, pillboxes and tailored hats.
"They are moving," said store owner Reanna Jacobs. "Now especially after the royal wedding everyone is trying them on. When they are trying on the hats, they are all talking about the royal wedding."
The customers are even going so far as talking in British accents to get into the mood.
"They are talking in accents, saying, 'It's brilliant' and 'It's fabulous.' It's great," Jacobs said with a laugh.
Jacobs hopes the hat-wearing trend will expand past Preakness.
"Hats are really not a part of our wardrobe," Jacobs explained. "We accessorize with a bag or belt. It's not something you wear except for Easter and church. They are really cool. It is really alluring and attractive to see all ages wearing it — not just older women."
Fascinators: A how-to guide
Popular colors: Red and coral appear to be the most popular colors for fascinators this season.
Fascinator hair type: Moore suggests women wrap their hair around the fascinator band so you can't see the fabric underneath, a la Kate Middleton.
Buy the dress first: It's easier to find a dress than a good hat in Baltimore. Our experts suggests that you purchase the hat first and find a dress to match it.
Wear a ponytail when wearing a hat: A ponytail helps the shape of the hat, according to Moore. "Pull the hat brim down to the eyebrow so that your forehead is covered," Moore said. "Let the hat act as your bang."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun