Throw a Kentucky Derby Party with Our Recipes and Style Inspiration
One day each year, folks dress in their spring finery and head to the racetrack. Or, for about two minutes, some with otherwise no interest in equine affairs turn to their televisions. Mint juleps are poured. Bets are placed. Rapt eyes focus on Louisville, Kentucky, where for over a century 20 of the most beautiful and athletic horses in the world compete in the first of three races that form the Triple Crown.
“The Run for the Roses”—or the Kentucky Derby—is one of our enduring national pastimes. Although originally modeled after the English Epsom Derby, it has become distinctly American. Southern style, food and customs pervade the event and the many events surrounding the main one. But just as the race’s founders took liberties with the equestrian traditions of Europe, many households and barrooms throw alternative versions of the party on the lawn at Churchill Downs.
Since the sporting life is as good a reason as any to rally around delicious food and drink, we invited some of our favorite Nordstrom people over for a Kentucky Derby party. Our menu included snack variations on traditional Southern foods, some strong cocktails and plenty of horsing around in front of the camera in candy-colored clothes. Since the main event usually takes just minutes, there’s ample time to catch up with each other and enjoy a pleasant, lazy afternoon that can easily drift from a casual cocktail hour into a light dinner.
The Kentucky Derby is Saturday, May 7. Undercard races begin at noon ET and the main event is at 4pm ET.
Derby dressing often incorporates pastel colors and preppy cuts. Dapper best describes the gentlemen’s style at the race. Ladies traditionally wear dresses, heels and flamboyant hats that can be cheeky and even hilarious. Because suits and dresses are the common silhouettes, derby clothing tends toward the conservative end of the style spectrum. Skimpy or subversive isn’t the order of the day, but that doesn’t mean your outfit should be dull. Never. We opted for playful but appropriate race day wear, utilizing color and pattern for the party effect.
Navy blazers (like his Hopsack sport coat) are seasonally appropriate and an item that many men already own or would wear again. Up the fashion factor by donning a colorful shirt and tie. We like pink with the blue, but lavender or a light green would also keep it festive. Your tie should always be a shade or several darker than your shirt. And don’t shy away from stripes or checks. Part of the fun of the Kentucky Derby is strutting out your inner show pony.
Although many men will wear a sport coat, there is no rule against shirtsleeves. Because the event does happen in Kentucky in the spring, some gentlemen will welcome a short-sleeve button-down shirt. Stick with white or another light color if you decide to let your biceps (or tattoos) show. Ties still work with short sleeves and can counter any casualness the cooler option might imply.
Although most gentlemen opt for a light colored pant, short suits are also derby appropriate. This seersucker suit with whales is not for the style shy, but few won’t be charmed by it. Seersucker is a popular fabric for both summer suits and dresses. Its puckered, often striped, cotton breathes easy and doesn’t require ironing, so wrinkling isn’t an issue—making it a pretty awesome party fabric.
Ladies, too, can benefit from the crisp cool of seersucker. Although traditionally the fabric is blue or white, other hues have been introduced over the years. The pretty strapless dress pictured here has a ruffle hem. Topped with a straw boater, the blush feminine frock gains an androgynous edge.
Emphasizing fashion and including elaborate women’s hats helped to sanction the Kentucky Derby as a high society event. Horse races were usually seen as places for disreputable gamblers or, at least, places for men to fraternize away from women. When the Derby’s organizers introduced dressing up as a race day element, more women were interested in attending the newly established event.
Today the outlandish toppers are as much a focus of the day as the horses. Wide-brim hats are the most common style worn at the Derby, but recently—thanks in part to the Royal Wedding in 2011—fascinators and pillbox hats are gaining popularity.
Roses are a great element to introduce in your party outfit or theme. Derby winners are celebrated with a blanket of red roses upon victory, which is where the alternate name for the race, the Run for the Roses, is derived from.
Gentlemen should feel free to play with print, as well. Florals and checks are great warm-weather options and fun ways to stand out from the pack of sport coat styles.
Our final piece of style advice would be to introduce a bit of whimsy into your derby day attire. This is an occasion to go all out but not to take yourself too seriously.
Country ham sliders with roasted garlic aioli, arugula and buttery rosemary biscuits
Mint dark chocolate cheesecake with bourbon whipped cream
Country ham sliders: For filling, bite-sized appetizers, we made homemade rosemary buttermilk biscuits. Choose a good-quality, thinly sliced cured country ham, add peppery arugula topped with a generous dollop of our roasted garlic aioli (it’s super easy but people think you’ve put in a lot of effort when you call it an aioli).
For the biscuits, you can use store-bought or our from-scratch recipe–they’re delicious. To make them slider sized, double the recipe and used a 2-inch biscuit cutter instead of the 3-inch called for in the recipe. Also, to save time on the day, consider making the dough in advance. Once you’ve cut out the biscuits and brushed the tops with melted butter, put the raw biscuits in the freezer on a baking sheet until frozen solid and transfer them to a zipper lock bag. When ready to bake, preheat the oven and transfer them to a baking sheet (don’t defrost them) and place in the oven for a few more minutes than called for in the recipe (22-25 minutes worked perfectly).
For dessert: our mint dark chocolate cheesecake. We made the cake a day in advance and topped it with a bourbon whipped cream (simply add 1 tablespoon good bourbon and 2 tablespoons sugar per cup of un-whipped cream).
The Twelve Mile Limit cocktail is a bold, Prohibition-era adult beverage guaranteed to get revelers in the mood for the race.
Bonus: break out a photo booth to have some fun while waiting for the race to start and to capture your winning look. Include fun props like a hobbyhorse, roses, hats, shades and mint juleps.
SHOP: Vineyard Vines
Art direction and food preparation: Jeff Powell
Photography: Elizabeth Rudge and Jesse Rivera (assistant)
Stylists: Tamala Ayres, Margaret Jones and Becky Pham
Hair and makeup: Jenny Verador and Carmen Gaskins (assistant)
Models: Richard Stegeman, Patrick Yanez, Chris Nelson, Marianne Hale, Justice and Maria Moncrease
Copy: Britt Olson