FranDye is 80 years old and a bit weary from her cross-country
plane trip, but when she hands Wayne Esterle a white
straw hat, she breaks into a jig.
tries on one of dozens of Wayne Esterle's creations.
In an annual rite of flamboyant excess, women clamor
to wear the biggest, most elaborate hat at the
races. They'll pay anywhere from $50 for a department
store hat to $1,500 for an original.
Photograph by Brian Wagner
For The Times
"We're going to go a little fancy!" she
hats are piled in Esterle's workshop; he'll be up past
midnight adorning each one with flowers and feathers
yards of tulle ribbon. Still, he manages a grin for Dye. "You got it!" he
tells her. Then he picks up his glue gun and a creamy
So much frou-frou, so little time.
In an annual rite of flamboyant excess, hundreds of women have
mobbed Esterle's design shop all week, clamoring for him
to make them the biggest, most outrageous hats he can
dream up -- Kentucky Derby hats.
In the rest of Louisville, in the rest of the country, Derby fans
pore over racing sheets, analyzing whether Action This Day
can pull an upset win over The Cliff's Edge.
In the hat shop, women debate whether their fake flowers should be
tinted peach or apricot.
"Does this make me look like a lampshade?" Cathy
Udall asks a friend, trying on an orange hat shaped
a bit like
old-time hair- salon helmet drier.
Day blurs into night as Esterle tacks velvet trim, spray-paints
silk peonies, coaxes purple asters to cascade just so down
the brim of a coy bonnet.
His thumb is stained sea-foam green. His fingers are raw with
glue-gun burns. Meals go uneaten, cigarettes unsmoked.
Taking up Dye's hat, he shapes turquoise netting into a pert bow,
then tucks in teal marigolds that pick up the precise
shade of the shoes she brought from Corona Del Mar to wear
at today's races. She left them in his workshop, for
Another customer has left him her skirt. Esterle dissects a faux
daisy and arranges the petals until they match the
embroidered pattern perfectly. He'll spend more than an
hour on this one order, adding a bloom here, twisting a
leaf there, until the hat looks glamorous and gaudy at
"We marvel at our clients' taste," Esterle
"Their good taste, I should say," he adds hastily. "Certain
people can put on a hat that's way over the top, and if
the right attitude, they can pull it off."
At Churchill Downs this afternoon, there will be attitude aplenty.
hats to the Derby is a ritual as cherished as singing "My
Old Kentucky Home" while the thoroughbreds parade
to the starting gate.
A century ago, the hats were practical, designed to shield fair
complexions from the sun. Now, they're an excuse to strut.
Fashion tip of the day: Big is good. Bigger is better.
"Any other time of the year, you'd feel like you were in costume,"
says Debbie Myers, a banker from Anchorage, Ky., in her
early 40s. "Or you'd feel like you were a package
all wrapped up with a bow."
Derby, however, "if you show up without a hat, all day long
people will ask you where your hat is," says Anessa
Arehart, who works for the Kentucky Museum of Arts and
Design. "It's easier to wear one than to try to explain."
year at Derby time, florist Wayne Esterle sets
up a hat shop in a Louisville hotel and creates
Photograph by Brian Wagner
For The Times
In recent decades, Derby millinery has divided into two distinct
crowd that floods the infield -- the grass oval in
the middle of the track -- tends to favor tank tops,
cutoff jeans and mud wrestling between races. Their hats
match the spirit of their $60 "cheap" seats,
topped with toy horses or beer cans.
In the luxury boxes -- where a seat can cost more than $500 -- the
attire is cocktail-party swank. There's no official dress
code. But the tug of tradition is so strong, there might
as well be. Men can get away with going hatless. Women
can't. And in fact, most don't want to. Many cheerfully
admit that they have more fun watching the hats than the
"It's like a day at the beach, where you're checking out everybody
that goes by. Only instead of, 'I can't believe that guy's
wearing such a tight Speedo,' at the Derby, you're like,
'How elegant! Isn't that hat amazing!' " says Tony
Terry, publicity director for Churchill Downs.
Drawing those oohs and aahs can cost anywhere from $50 for a
department-store hat to $1,500 for a designer original.
If you're a Derby regular, that's an annual expense: No one wears
the same hat two years in a row.
"Your outfits change," Myers explains. "And
your friends would notice."
Some women do wear their hats to church, or weddings, or garden
parties -- or even to opening days at California
racetracks. A few hang their Derby hats on their walls as
But most of the eye-popping creations end up in closets. The
flamboyant style that goes so well with mint juleps just
doesn't hold up outside Churchill Downs.
"Let's face it," Terry says. "If
you wore these hats anywhere but the Derby, they would
That's why Esterle spends most of the year running a downtown
floral shop. He picks up his glue gun for just 10 days
each spring, when he takes over a vacant shop at the
Executive West Hotel near the airport, where many racing
He drapes the walls with black curtains, installs shelves and
mirrored pedestals, floats a few feathered boas over the
counter -- and the Hat Shop is open for business.
The store bursts with color. Here's a lime-green bird's nest
covered in fluorescent-bright down. There, a purple saucer
decked with cloth ruffles. On this pedestal, a red chapeau
sprouts huge black latex magnolias, so shiny they almost
reflect. Esterle has designed most of these hats himself,
though he purchased a few ready- made from fashion shows.
Staying open as long as the customers wandering in are sober --
which can be as late as 11 p.m. -- Esterle sells a few
dozen off- the-shelf hats each year.
of his sales come from his cramped corner workshop,
hazy with too many aerosol sprays of dusty rose and
Perched on a stool, a Styrofoam head nearby to serve as a model,
Esterle creates about 300 hats in the week leading up to
Few customers give him specific instructions. They just show him
their outfits and let him pick and choose among the
hot-pink ostrich feathers, the rhinestones, the crystal
baubles, the 700 stalks of flowers, the 40 shades of
paint, the 500 yards of tulle ribbon in two dozen riotous
One longtime client, Bonnie Gates, 69, brings five outfits --
dress, shoes, purse and all -- when she drives up from
Morristown, Tenn. She lets Esterle pick the one she should
wear. Then he creates a matching hat guaranteed to stand
out in the race-day crowd of 150,000.
This year, he presented her with a black hat, nearly two feet
across from brim to brim, adorned with regal vines of
purple wisteria that drifted down almost to her shoulders.
At $500, it was his most expensive creation of the season.
Most of his hats run $150 to $350.
who admits she goes to the Derby for the socializing,
not the sport -- was thrilled with Esterle's effort: "He's
the greatest, just the greatest."
Bruce Meyer, 68, has heard that refrain many times.
Every year, he and his wife, Barbara, drive to the Derby from their
home in Flora, Ind.
she tells him she's brought an old hat with her, so
she won't need to buy a new one.>
lasts about as long as it takes to walk from the hotel
registration desk to the Hat Shop.>
"Oh, I love this!" she
says, trying on one of Esterle's designs, a sheer black
hat blooming with red roses.
"How 'bout this?" her friend Marijo Driggs, 62, calls out. She has
on another Esterle original, a brown hat with quill-like
feathers poking out at odd angles, like a rumpled
porcupine. "What do you think? Is it too much?"
"Oh no!" Meyer gasps. "It's
Her husband stifles a laugh.
"Every year, they come here early and think they've found the
perfect hat. Then later in the week, they find another one
that's more perfect. And then another one. By the end,
they've each bought three," Bruce Meyer says. "The
way they strut their stuff, you'd think every one was a
He sighs. "If
it looks good and it keeps Momma happy, that's good
enough for me."
Esterle, 46, has been interested in floral design since he began
fishing discarded bouquets from the cemetery trash bin as
a teenager so he could practice arranging. But he's never
formally studied fashion design, and stumbled into the hat
business by accident.
In the mid-1980s, his floral shop was located in the Executive
West. One year, Esterle trimmed a few hats to decorate the
windows for Derby week. They were intended for display,
but women begged him to sell them.
Sensing a market, Esterle trimmed two dozen hats the following
year. He sold out within days. Between the hat shop and
his fresh- floral business (which employees run while he's
busy with the hats), Esterle makes 15% of his annual
income in the week leading up to the Derby.
He's come to think of those frenetic 18-hour days almost as a
A former floral shop employee, Judye Fravert, returns from Oklahoma
City every year to work the counter at the Hat Shop.
Customers come back year after year, too. Esterle knows many of
them well enough to nag them unabashedly.
Huddled in the back with Fravert one afternoon, he frets that a
favorite client is planning to wear black sandals with a
cream- colored linen suit.
"She says she's not going to buy shoes to match," he whispers. "But
she will if we tell her to."
he frowns as his part-time assistant, Harriette Miller,
trims a hat to match a bright floral jacket. The customer
has asked for flowers in red, gold and white.>
"Those look like team colors," Esterle says unhappily. "It
really does need some purple."
Fravert pokes her head in the workshop to remind him that the
customer specified no purple. But already, Miller is
gluing a few silk violets to the brim.
"She'll get over it," Esterle
Most of his customers do. They have long since learned to trust his
"He makes the hats so beautiful, you feel really good when you wear
them," says Anne Burke, who breeds racehorses in
Burke ordered her first hat from Esterle five years ago. A broad-
brimmed beauty, it was entirely covered in red rose
petals, so it looked like a giant open bloom. Her photo
made the Louisville paper that year.
She's been back to the Hat Shop every Derby since, demanding
evermore intricate creations.
"I'll tell you," she calls out, as Esterle lifts his glue gun once
more, "this really is a ball."
Credit: Times Staff Writer