Standing in the shade of a towering maple and clutching strawberry-topped flutes of champagne not far from where lean horses thundered around the riding ring at the Devon Horse Show, dozens of women gathered Wednesday to admire what has become rare in an increasingly casual world: fancy hats.
Really fancy hats. Some towering and elaborate. Others dainty and delicate. All rolled out for the horse show’s annual hat contest, which has become a Main Line tradition since its inception eight years ago.
The competition attracts an enthusiastic field of women largely from the Philadelphia suburbs. Each woman, competitors say, has her own strategy.
Some treat the contest casually, selecting a hat from a store and simply heading out to enjoy the day. Others plan for weeks, working with fashion professionals across the globe in an effort to win one of seven prizes, including best in show.
If hats are somewhat of a fashion relic, they’re also a nod to history and ever-evolving style.
“The hat thing is gone," said Judy Lynn Dyitt, 59, of Media, a first-time competitor who attended with her daughter, Janell, 30. “It’s kind of like a dinosaur, if you will. We looked everywhere for fascinator hats because now they’re hard to find.”
For some competitors, the search for a sophisticated hat that will stand out at Devon means seeking it in Europe.
“I worked with a milliner in the United Kingdom,” said Marianne Styles, 55, of West Chester, wearing a fascinator topped with bright cloth toadstools and a miniature fairy, her take on this year’s show theme of "Enchanted Garden.” “I had the shoes made, and sent to [the Czech Republic] for the purse.”
Pamela Targan, 69, commissioned a Palo Alto, Calif., dressmaker who specializes in ballerina outfits to make her dress for Devon, a long peach-pink gown with floral appliques. But Targan, a painter, retired art teacher, and longtime Devon Horse Show attendee from Northfield, N.J., designed her purse and wide hat herself, liberally applying cloth roses, butterflies, and a miniature bird ornament.
“Your imagination has a lot to do with it,” she said.
In the crowd of more than 250 attendees and 80 competitors dressed in seemingly every color and pattern was Joy Mossholder Sporn, difficult to miss in her 30-inch-tall, Alice in Wonderland-inspired hat, professionally bedecked with dozens of flowers, leaves, fronds, and butterflies.
“It’s four pounds,” said Sporn, 49, of Devon, walking carefully so as not to knock her headpiece off-kilter. “It’s also squeezing. There’s no straps. It’s all tension. So I took an Advil before I came here.”
Colorful, often curlicued, hats, popular among women at derbies, have evolved significantly since their humble origins as practical protectors against the sun, said Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky.
“As you get into the ’50s and ’60s, that’s when you start to see hats become a little less common in society,” he said. “It continues with the Derby partially because — for lack of a better term — of the avant-garde trend.”
In came a wave of hats festooned with plumes, feathers, and ribbons, Goodlett said. “Stuff you’re not going to wear every day.”
Now, hats ranging from teeny-tiny toppers to behemoths that require exacting balance to wear have become masterpieces in their own right at various horse events, Goodlett said, particularly at the world-renowned Derby.
And, of course, Devon.
“I think it recalls a certain age of glamour, and in our more casual society, we don’t have much of a chance to take advantage of it," said Tiffany Arey, a milliner in Reading who fields calls from women clamoring for her work every year before Devon. "Hats are automatic conversation starters, so it’s nice to be able to have something like that.”
At Devon, standing before nine judges including Carson Kressley (who starred on Queer Eye and now judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race), Arey proudly modeled her hat, a birdcage-like triumph in black, white, and pink.
“Looks gorgeous,” Kressley said appreciatively, making notes shortly before the judges huddled around a long table, consulting clipboards with notes scrawled on them, to decide who would win.
In short time, an elated Styles won best fascinator. She joined Kathleen Kenneally, 46, of Wayne, for best hat to toe; Amy Holzapfel, 44, of Devon, for best professional milliner; and Sporn, who with several of her friends won best group.
Finally, a slightly astonished-looking Targan was ushered to the front, the victor for best in show.