Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk
The horses that will take to the track at the Kentucky Derby are supposed to be the stars of the show. And, sure, technically, they are. But they always have some competition for spectators’ attentions: the hats.
From silly to frilly, the race-day hat has become a mainstay (and, to some, a good-luck charm). But, while today’s hats can get a bit outrageous, the tradition of hats at the races is longstanding. In 1945, LIFE photographer Nina Leen chronicled some of that year’s best hats—though further details of the story and its fate have been lost to time. The photographs in this accompanying gallery never ran in LIFE, and notes about exactly where they were shot were not preserved.
A few clues can be found in the photos: a woman holds a program on which a few horses’ names appear: SAFETY EDGE, WAVERLY, BLUE SWEEP and some of the features of the track, like the letters U and L on a balcony, are clear. Information about these photos remains a mystery to us (if you have any ideas, you can find us on Twitter at @LIFE) but one thing’s clear: the Derby is a place for hats to shine.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk