Ahead of the Kentucky Derby race, milliners in Louisville, where the storied event is held, are scrambling to finish hats for attendees to wear as they watch horses and jockeys compete on the track on Saturday. Not only is Christine Moore one of them but she is also Kentucky Derby’s featured milliner. “It’s a really busy time,” she confirms.
Since Kentucky Derby's beginnings in 1875, hats have been a protagonist of the annual event, known for its over-the-top fashion that includes colorful dresses, pearl necklaces, and dramatic fascinators. As a featured milliner since 2018, Moore creates one-of-a-kind hats for attendees, as well as collaborates on pieces for the Kentucky Derby Museum. “It’s not just fashion,” she says. “That hat makes it a head-to-toe look and brings it to the next level.”
When it comes to hats at the Kentucky Derby, the unofficial motto is “go big, or go home.” Attendees at past editions have worn styles covered in roses; wide-brimmed hats topped with feathers and horse plush toys; and rose-shaped headpieces that require a neck attachment to be worn. They get even more intricate when celebrities are involved. In 2013, Lauren Conrad wore a beige flower-shaped fascinator; in 2006, Erykah Badu opted for a velvet black top hat; and in 2019 Michelle Williams sported a giant blush hat with tulle and lace details. Hat aficionado and royal Queen Elizabeth II attended the Kentucky Derby race in 2007 wearing a bright green and pink wide-brim hat with bow detail.
But while the theatrical appearance of these hats may seem like the main goal for a milliner, Moore says it’s a delicate balance. “I think the number one thing for the Kentucky Derby today is the element of elegance,” she says. “And maintaining that elegance is what makes it so theatrical.”
Moore first started working as a milliner in 1994, when she opened her boutique in New York City. Since then, she has worked with celebrities like Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Lopez and television series like Gossip Girl and Nashville. While she’s been the featured milliner at the Kentucky Derby for the last four years, Moore’s relationship to the event started in 2009, when she was commissioned by Churchill Downs and Mattel to create the Kentucky Derby Barbie’s hat.
From the beginning, Moore says she welcomed the challenging nature of millinery, which, according to her, requires sculptor-like abilities. “You aren’t just pushing fabric into a sewing machine, you're also trying to manipulate the fabric in a really cool way, in a unique way,” she says. “But the thing about hats is that once you start experimenting with materials, like plastic and metal, the sky’s the limit.”
This mindset is visible in her work, which combines the dramatic silhouettes the event is known for with the type of sophistication that sets her apart from the kitschy costume-like hats the event also attracts. Some of her most recent work includes a silver straw hat with ribbons shaped like a graphic bowtie and a fascinator made to look like a blooming purple flower. Moore says that while she often comes up with inspiration on her own, her clients are always surprising her with ideas that push her as a designer. “They present me with things that leave me like, How are we going to do this?” she says. “There’s always a challenge here, and we do break a lot of needles.”
Royalty aside, while the art of millinery has fallen out of fashion for modern-day consumers, it is one of the oldest traditions in fashion — one that started the careers of many legendary designers, including Coco Chanel and Halston. “There used to be a hat culture, it was part of everybody’s dress,” says Moore. While Moore saw the decline in the style’s popularity in the ‘90s, she also saw a new generation of designers take on millinery, reviving the tradition for new customers. “Nobody could tell us that the world wasn’t wearing hats,” she says. “There’s no trend.”
Years later, Moore believes hats are still a relevant part of the fashion landscape, particularly during events like the Kentucky Derby. “People are not interested in wearing casual hats,” she says. “They want to do the over-the-top, fabulous hats, and they want to have that whole experience.”