While some come for the horse racing, others come for the party atmosphere. But the one aspect of the Preakness Stakes, held today at the Pimlico race track in Baltimore, that you just can't miss — particularly if stuck behind one — is the large, fashionable, functional hats.
Over the years, decorative head wear has become just as associated with the race as equestrian feats, with hats ranging from the understated to the towering, from homemade to expensive boutique.
Margie Hicks, owner of Hats by Marjae, an online hat boutique based in Finksburg, said Preakness week — including Black-Eyed Susan Day, held Friday — is one of the biggest times of the year for milliners, or those who design and sell hats.
"The connection between hats and horse racing goes back about as far as I can remember," Hicks said. "What is a day without women and their hats?"
Fashionable hats have been a staple of horse racing since the establishment of the Kentucky Derby in 1875, according to Torb and Reiner, an Australian organization dedicated to the history and art of hats and hatmaking. According to history offered on the Kentucky Derby website, organizers of the race wanted to call back to the images of European high society and races by establishing a strict emphasis on fashion.
Initially, European women did not wear hats as often as their male counterparts until the mid-1500s, when they became a symbol of status and ceremony.
Hat styles have shifted over the years, with some embracing bonnets and others forming monuments to the sky upon their heads.
Lori Ezell, who attended the race last year, said she went out and bought a braided, beige, wide-brimmed hat specifically for the event.
"It made me feel like I'm a part of the Baltimore community," said Ezell, of Westminster. "I feel like it really embodies the spirit."
Ezell said she looked at dozens of options before settling on a hat. She said she wanted something understated enough to wear outside of the horse racing season. So far, she said she was able to wear it at an outdoor wedding as a stylish flourish that protected her from the sun.
This year, Hicks said, bright colors are what's in for the hatted masses.
"It's all about the feathers and flowers, with the colors being green, orange, purple, and yellow," Hicks said.
Hicks sells hats of her own design as well as those from various boutiques, in order to give shoppers a variety of styles beyond her own. The hats are then delivered to places throughout the country.
Hicks said the store formerly had a physical location, but as hat selling is a largely seasonal occupation, it made more sense to move the outfit online. She's been in the hat business for six years and said she comes from a long line of hat-wearing family members.
"My mother and sister came here from the South, and they were brought up Baptist. That's where we get the hat-wearing from," Hicks said. "Soon, everyone in the community wanted their hats adorned and embellished and designed by me. It started taking off from there."
For the past several years, Hicks has designed hats for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for Black-Eyed Susan Day. As a Baltimore native, Hicks said it's been an honor to be a part of the Preakness celebrations in such a major way. She said it takes a fair amount of designing to come up with the perfect Preakness hat.
"I just sit back and think of spring and the colors and what a woman would look most beautiful in," Hicks said. "I think about how I would want myself to look. I love for women to be beautiful and feel confident."