Hat's all, folks!

Best of Devon winner at Devon Horse Show Hat Day is Robin Sweet of Newtown Square.
Best of Devon winner at Devon Horse Show Hat Day is Robin Sweet of Newtown Square. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

At the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair's annual Ladies Day, the contest was on their heads.

Posted: May 30, 2014

The fierce fascinators, bold bonnets, and 10-gallon chapeaux at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair's annual Ladies Day Hat Contest on Wednesday morning were sweeter than the cotton candy sold on the midway.

We are talking total sartorial saccharin.

About 250 women in kitten heels and preppy fit-and-flare frocks dressed up their domes in faux gardens and glittering lights. Under gray skies and swollen clouds, the competitors - DIY artists, all - twirled and curtsied for seven judges, including celebrity fashion expert Carson Kressley.

Some of the millinery was magical, especially the merry-go-round hat with teeny-tiny horses. There was a headpiece fashioned from remy (the same kind of human hair used in, say, Beyonce's weave) that was oddly cool.

Then there were the four seasons: a quartet of best friends accoutred as winter, spring, summer, and fall, vying together for prizes that included a pearl necklace and a $100 gift card from Boyds Philadelphia.

"We came last year and decided that we needed to do something fabulous," said Joanne Bogan, 55, of Newtown Square, the Ms. Fall of the group. Her floppy burnt-orange bonnet was piled high with faux harvest fruits. "We wanted come together as one!"

Good call. They won the Best Hat-to-Toe Award.

The mother-daughter team of Jean and Marie Kovacs, from Ewing, N.J., blended cowboy style and Victorian-era panache in barely-able-to-balance-on-their-heads monstrosities. Theirs was a darker take on this year's theme, "Ribbons and Pearls."

"Hat" is just too simple a word to describe their 3-D collages, made from artistic foam and overflowing with pearls, lace, leather, flowers, and a clutch bag. (Yes, you read that right - a clutch bag. We said it was teetering.)

"We couldn't just wear a hat," said Jean Kovacs. "We had to go all out. We had to create."

Lady Gaga would have been dazzled.

Traditionally, hats at the Devon Horse Show - or any equestrian event, from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes - have been extravagant, but not necessarily homemade. The annual spring contests, with their mint juleps and jodhpurs, were, historically, social events for important businessmen, politicians and their wives to gather and be seen, said Ellen Goldstein, a professor in the accessories and design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

"Fashion wasn't so much flamboyant as it was respectable," said Goldstein, adding that the style of hat fell right into the fashion trends. "A well-dressed woman did not leave her home without the proper cloché. The chicer the hat, the more clout the husband had."

The Devon Horse Show started in 1896, and by the early teens, Ladies Day had been established to draw women to the stand for the female sidesaddle races. It featured on-site shopping from Philadelphia department stores, as well as teas and luncheons.

The hat contest was begun in the 1990s as a nod to Devon history, but only about two dozen volunteers participated. About seven years ago, Jen McGowan, then the Ladies Day chairwoman, amped it up in an effort to draw in younger women. In 2011, McGowan said, the Ladies Day Hat Contest gained steam - coincidentally, the year that Kate Middleton married Prince William and fascinators were on trend.

Interest in dressing up is the reason for millennials' attraction to equine parties, garden lunches, and reenactments of sophisticated social events of yore. Who wouldn't want to play dress-up after watching those extravagant lawn parties on PBS' Downton Abbey?

A curiosity about simpler times, combined with the popularity of Throwback Thursdays on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest selfies (the Devon Horse Show is @Devon1896), keeps old-school fashion popular, even though it's more for show these days.

No surprise, the owner of the carousel hat, Robin Sweet of Newtown Square, took home Best of Devon. Her hat, and her red dress and shiny red shoes, drew oohs, handshakes, hugs, and praise from Kressley himself. "It's hard to do whimsical in a chic, stylish way," he said.

Sweet, owner of a BYOB art studio in Wayne, Painting with a Twist, said she wanted to celebrate the history of Devon, "the carousel, the horses, and the hackney pony."

"And I did it. I did it, with lots and lots of hot glue."


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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