If you look closely at Sally Faith Steinmann’s gossamer hats, you’ll see reflections of racehorses, the awe-inspiring great ones.
The regal, powerful head of Black Tie Affair is captured in soft silver dupioni silk and silver silk organza in a design reflecting movement with light and shadows; in another, Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby victory is represented by eight roses—the number of his post position—entwined on a hat constructed of chocolate dupioni silk, a color and shape representing his powerful form.
“Each hat,” Steinmann says, “is a unique artistic experience that unfolds as I study and research my equine subjects.
“Sometimes it’s the conformation of the horse; the size, color, markings, or even posture; or some distinctive feature, such as the way his mane falls, or the way his coat hair grows when the light shines on it in a certain way.”
Steinmann, owner of Maggie Mae Designs of South Harwich, Mass., had been making fashionable hats for discriminating clients for years.
In 2008, the year Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized at the Kentucky Derby, the hat maker decided to combine her fashion talent with her lifelong love of horses.
Reaching out to Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends Kentucky, she offered to donate hats created and patterned after famous racehorses, to help raise funds for the sprawling Thoroughbred retirement farm.
Hats off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby auction and fundraiser was soon born.
Now in its third year, the annual event runs from Nov. 1 until Kentucky Derby Day.
Every month, a hat patterned after a famous racehorse is auctioned to raise proceeds for the Thoroughbred charity. Thus far, over $10,000 has been raised.
The fashionable hats have been worn by auction winners at the Kentucky Derby and at Royal Ascot, providing a beautiful finishing touch to a glamorous outfits, and serving to remind those in the horse industry that racehorses deserve a future at the end of their racing careers.
“These auction hats are tiny ‘ambassadors’ to help spread the word, not only about the horses of Old Friends, but about all retired racehorses who need our support,” she says.
Steinmann has never been to the Derby. But racehorses have always been close to her heart.
As a young girl she eschewed baby dolls in favor of stuffed horses, for whom she made little hats. And on her family television, she watched the triumph of Secretariat and the tragedy of Ruffian.
“When ruffian broke down in her match race, I think it was then that I realized it’s not always a happily ever after story for these racehorses,” she says.
It would be many years later that her newfound creative flair for hat making and her admiration for racehorses would be stitched together.
After returning home from Wellesley College, where she majored in Women’s Studies, she picked up millinery work almost by accident. Never a great student in home economics, she started dabbling in hat design. And her business took off out of the starting gait!
As it grew, she began attracting clients headed to the Kentucky Derby. And when she found herself deeply engrossed in client conversations about which horses were running in the great race, she began to imagine a way of melding her two great loves together.
She got her answer in 2007 after Barbaro died. “I was inspired to put the depth of sadness I felt about him into a hat design,” she says. “And at the same time, I wanted to celebrate the amazing athlete he was.”
Both Barbaro and Black Tie Affair are part of a growing lineage of racehorses who inspire the hats offered for auction by Maggie Mae Designs, directly benefiting retired racehorses living at Old Friends Equine.
The Third Annual Auction is currently underway at Old Friends, and can be viewed on their website, as well as Maggie Mae Designs.
Whether a donation is made directly to Old Friends or another horse charity, or a bid is sent for a hat, every contribution matters, she says.
“These horses give everything as athletes and as breeders, and they need us to care for them when they get older, Steinmann says.
“This auction series and my hats are part of just one small movement to see that these horses get what they need.”