Milliner Gigi Burris Does the Derby

A tale of hats, bourbon, and horse racing, but mainly hats 

This weekend marked the 142nd annual Kentucky Derby, an event famed not only for its high bets and lightening fast horses, but for the spectacular hats that fill Churchill Downs’ stands. Here, New York-based milliner Gigi Burris gives Fashion Unfiltered an exclusive inside look at America’s most spectacularly hatted weekend.

My very first Derby experience shed light on one of my craft’s traditions that I had not had the opportunity to fully appreciate. Participating in the spectacle that was the 142nd annual Kentucky Derby allowed me to see that this weekend is a time that women and men put forth the effort to be well dressed from head to toe, and in color, no less! Our current climate of jeans, sweats, and my personal reality of an all black wardrobe was challenged by crisp cotton dresses, brightly colored blazers, and of course, droves of breathtaking headwear.

My dear friend Matthew was raised in Louisville, so he had prepared an unparalleled food and bourbon tour. While wearing a dusty pink wide brimmed cowgirl hat, I started my first meal at Royals Hot Chicken, and washed it down with a bourbon slushie made with local ginger ale.

Friday is Oaks Day, when women traditionally wear pink. The official flower is a stargazer lily. My companions Matthew and Evan each had bespoke men’s Gigi Burris Hats and stargazer boutonnieres. I wore a fitted Ohne Titel (R.I.P.) dress with a two piece chapeau. A veil swept over my face and a large straw panama with silk lilies and ostrich feathers sat atop. We attended a gorgeous private brunch party where we saw hundreds of hats on the lawn before heading over to Churchill Downs, where we had a table in Millionaires Row. Naturally, we placed bets all day, and the loser was made to buy rounds of juleps. I continued to be amazed at the pomp and authenticity the entire event had.

On official Derby day, the track felt a bit overwhelming, so Matthew led us on a tour of the Bourbon Trail, starting with a drive through horse country and on to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Wearing a white lace Veronica Beard sundress with what I have to say was an incredible derby hat, we continued on to Holly Hill Inn for lunch. While we ate biscuit sandwiches on the porch of the Antebellum Estate, our ensembles drew compliments from fellow diners. My hat was made of imported Swiss Racello braid and trimmed with a wide vintage cotton grosgrain. Sweeps of peacock flue and duck feathers embellished the right side. We never made it to the track after the Four Roses Distillery, and instead went to a friend’s viewing party downtown where we watched the main event, which ended up being very short race. Following the party, the fashion parade moved to the Proof on Main restaurant—the place to have a meal and celebrate winning bets after the Derby. Parties after parties of ladies arrived wearing hats of all sizes and colors. Juleps continued to flow late into the evening.

On Sunday, a traditional Kentucky hot brown sandwich was needed to soak up the sins from the days before. Sadly, the beautiful dining room at the Brown hotel was no longer filled with hats, just hangovers.

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