Kentucky Oaks: Pink Swans and Brims

May 4, 2019

Kentucky Oaks 2019: Pink Swans and Brims

By Kate Richards                                                     

The store was packed to the maximum capacity.  “It is our busiest day of the year,” said Larry Olliges, owner of Dee’s Crafts and Gifts in Louisville. It was Thursday, the day before the Oaks and two days before the Derby and the 13 aisles and 32 shelves were stacked with rainbow-hued hat bases, flowers and feathers plus row after row of the finished versions of every size, shape and dimension, some towering and others extending past the shoulders in  tulle drapes and folded simenay. I began to count heads and became distracted by a petite lady modeling a hat as big as her child that accompanied her. Big brims are a dominant look for Derby week in Louisville. This one had its own zip code.

How many hats does Dee’s sell per Derby season, I asked?

Larry grinned. “Well, that is proprietary, but I would say that it is in the thousands.”

Moreover, why at this late date of May 2 was Dee’s packed? “Ladies often hear about us from the locals and many of our Louisville ladies obtain last minute tickets from their workplace or a friend.” He smiled again, “Some get the fun of seeing what their Derby guests are wearing and get a second hat, or even buy some new accessories and make a new creation out of the old.”

Dee’s also offers a month-long Saturday tutorial in the store, teaching would-be milliners about handling the woven straw of simenay. Cathy Olliges, Larry’s wife and head hat designer is well known for her popular YouTube sessions on cutting feathers. He added, “A lady can select a base, add netting, silk flowers and trimmed feathers and we can put that together for her within days for an extra design fee. We get quite a bit of out of town orders that send us a picture of their dress and leave it up to us.”

There are 133 lilies in the Kentucky Oaks garland blanket sewn onto a white fleur-de-lis printed cloth, so how much ‘stuff’ can a Churchill Downs swan pack onto a hat? “A lot” Larry Olliges said.

Breaking it down for a custom DIY hat from Dee’s:

$30 to $100 for a blank base starting with the smallest dips to the big gun brims.

(Dee’s bases come with an attached matching satin headband)

Separate high-quality silk flowers $15-$25

Polyester floral stalks $9-12

Finished hats and fascinator’s at Dee’s can range from $125 upwards to $300 depending on the decoration.

As Larry pointed out, “There is a difference between a milliner and a hat decorator.” A hat decorator purchases pre-made items and attaches them by thread or hot glue. An adjunct to the latter, is the designer, who may purchase a base, but cuts feathers, designs and constructs the accessories. This allows for some latitude in sourcing materials. A milliner will acquire a felt or straw “capeline” hood and stretch the hood over a wooden block. Hat makers highly prize carved blocks and the blocks themselves run into the hundreds of dollars. Constructing simenay bases is something of an art with several layers of the fabric glued on top of another, dried and then dampened to apply to a mold.

Etsy’s online boutiques is a common source for many women who prefer to shop early, yet it has been my experience that the second hat and the last-minute purchases are very popular as a dress choice can change due to any number of circumstances. Other popular retailers in Louisville include Raquel Koff’s Rodeo Drive and Rodes for Him and Her where a hat typically runs in the $300 to $400 range. That noted, many of these are one of a kind and often show up on eBay in time for the Saratoga hat parades. Christine Moore of NYC is a favorite among the Keeneland crowd, and one can peruse her hats displays during the spring and fall meets. They are pricey but gorgeous.

The race hat originated in England as the protocol of covering the top of one’s head is required in the presence of a crowned head, such as Queen Elizabeth II. During the Royal Ascot meet in June, hats for both women and men are considered de riguer. Moreover, the styles introduced as well as the materials used often indicate what will be accessible and perhaps, worn by a member of the Royal family. The Royals are partial to Locke & Company, Jane Taylor, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy, the latter responsible for the outrageous designs worn to Prince William’s wedding to Duchess Kate by Prince Andrew’s daughters.

Australia is a beacon of fresh looks for both millinery and festive racewear. Hat’s by Mel and Jack & Jill Millinery are standouts and often win the hat categories in one of the most competitive “Fashion on the Field” events in the world, held every year, and sponsored by Jaguar, during the Dubai World Cup celebration. Ireland’s Carol Kennelly dominates the fashion parades at the Curragh and during the county meets.

It is our lilies, our ladies in pink, who will dazzle alongside the fillies the running of the Kentucky Oaks. It was in 1991 that Churchill Downs designated the stargazer lily as the race’ official flower and then in 2009 teamed with breast cancer awareness and education. From the Twin Spires to the horse wraps to the brims of the hats and the official drink, Churchill Downs has been pink ever since.

It is timely to note that one of Churchill’s track swans, and wife of jockey Corey Lanerie marched in last year’s Survivor Parade. Shantel Lanerie was a beauty and outspoken in breast cancer awareness. Louisville mourned her subsequent passing and remembered her image last May with her lovely pink hat holding her daughter’s hat.

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