The Mad Hatters

Sorting Distinctions of Taste & Style

Royal Ascot is the most prestigious race in the world. But is the Kentucky Derby turning a time-honored tradition into a Drag Show? Expat LAURA BROWN checks in at both and finds the sweet spot in a very special alliance.

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Girly Brown

Royal Ascot is the social peak of the racing season where 300 years of British tradition culminate in competitive horse races, gourmet foods, and, lets be honest here, a celebration of the finest hats in the world. In fact, Ascot, together with its American offshoot, The Kentucky Derby, may be the only place where royalty, celebrity and society-at-large compete brim-to-brim for headlines with the most hideous, flamboyant, and often news making hats.

Ascot has and continues to have the strictest dress code; with hats, shoulders and hemlines under strict scrutiny. The Queen presides at Royal Ascot and is the perfect exemplar of dress and style. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were conspicuously absent this year, but the newly single Prince Harry looked as delicious as ever in the required grey or black morning suit complete with tails, tie and top hat.

The Kentucky Derby conversely gives ladies free reign where their heads are concerned, and elsewhere in Britain women use millinery to express their taste, style and ambitions. Princess Beatrice for example wore a headpiece which resembled an ‘orange peel’ this year, though I’m not sure that anything could outshine the ‘Pink Pretzel Hat’ she darned at the Royal Wedding in 2011 and later sold on eBay for $130K. No worries, Beatrice. We know your a working girl. There’s always next year.

From christenings to weddings and wakes, even the odd Bag Lady is festooned with a hat in Britain. Steven Jones Millinery caters to catwalks and state occasions, while Bernstock Speirs is for clubbing and the whimsical smart set. Be they flamboyant, fancy, or mere frippery, hats are to Britain what shoes are in America—iconography. Yet every time a Yank tries to interpret a British institution they end up looking like NBC Fashion Correspondent Johnny Weir, who, at this year’s 140th Kentucky Derby, darned a Kerin Rose Gold inspired headdress with a golden statue of Pegasus flying out of its feathers. A symbol of wisdom during the Middle Ages, both Weir and Gold hedged their bets that the Pegasus inspired drag show would produce a competitive edge in network ratings only to have jumped the gun, hurdled right over taste, and landed facedown in the rating’s mud puddle in Third Place.

The “Princess Beatrice Ridiculous Royal Wedding Hat” controversy however spawned blog posts, a Facebook page with over 140,000 fans, and ultimately a platform for ‘Children in Crisis’ whose mission states: Where resources are few, where education is needed to heal the nation, and where it is too remote for others, our aim is to support children to read, write, think, pursue their life goals and contribute positively to their communities. Indeed, all proceeds went straight to charity with HRH Princess Beatrice no worse for the wear.

Clothes don’t change the world. The women who wear them do. Style is a simple way of saying complicated things. Fashion, however sadly, is what follows.

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