Although it's only Wednesday here at Churchill Downs, you can already take a stroll of the grounds and see countless beautiful women wearing the kind of gigantic, gaudy hats that have become an important Derby stable during the last 100-plus years. And while I mostly ignored the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, I couldn't help but be struck today by how much better our ridiculous formal headware is in America than the ridiculous formal headware in England.
Did you happen to catch the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the royal wedding? It looked like a crustacean dressed in formal wear, then mounted on her forehead. If she wore that to Churchill Downs for Derby Day, I'm fairly certain it would be torn off her head by crows while a drunken mob cheered them on from the infield.
The Southern tradition of wearing fancy Derby hats actually has roots in the hats worn by English women. But unlike rock 'n roll, where Americans never really figured out how to improve on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, we've actually figured this one out. The right Derby hat is not only stylish and classy, it's functional. It can keep the sun off your pretty face, and it can provide cover for some surreptitious people watching. It's classy and it refuses to go out of style. It gets attention without straining to be avant garde. Even when you see a Derby hat that's too big or trying to hard to get attention, it's still looks more like a hat than it does balloon animal. English women can't say that.
A lot of traditions of the old South are disappearing, but a beautiful woman wearing a big, beautiful hat is one of the few rituals that endures, and with good reason. Sure, in England you can staple something that looks like a mollusk to your bangs and call it a hat, but in America, we keep it simple. We keep it real.