The answer is simply, not too much!
Both are small, elegant, somewhat outlandish fashion statements and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
But if you really want to know, there are some differences between the two. The cocktail hat is the precurser of the fascinator. It came first, and today’s fascinator is not a real hat, but a delightful head ornament that clearly has its origins in yesterday’s cocktail hat.
The Cocktail Hat
The cocktail hat started somewhere in the 1930’s stemming from the popularity of new movie stars wearing these glamourous and often dazzling pieces made by wardrobe departments for films.
Once these designs were being showcased in film and thousands of people were seeing it, it started making the tastemakers catch on and embellish more on this headwear style.
Often, well dressed women and those that were in touch with high fashion would wear these pieces to balls, tea parties, luincheons, and many other occasions setting the standard. They were created with a hat base with nothing more than a hat pin to hold them in place.
Of course, it was ok for a woman to go without a head piece, but it became almost a standard in fashion for ladies around the world to adorn themselves with different ornaments on their heads by the 1940's.
The Fascinator head pieces today:
Fascinators are a direct descendant of the cocktail hat yet, are created in a different manner. Facinators usually have a smaller base foundation, posistioned traditionally on the side or top of the head & attached with a combination of combs, pins, clips or some sort of elastic accessory, or a combination of all these just to keep it from falling off. So, all in all, its not trully a formed had like its predecessor but more of an ornament .
Feathers, lace , jewels, flowers and veils are added to the piece for the final look but mostly feathers or plumes of some exotic or vibrant bird will be in place for the effect.
Kate Middleton, the now Duchess of Cambridge made this tradision and fashion statement more common. Facinators can also be part of wedding wear tradition between bride's maids and even the bride herself.
Of course the races at Churchill Downs for the running of the Kentucky Derby this year and at fashionable Kentucky Derby parites all over the country usually have a wide variety of styles worn. The fascinator is not going anywhere anytime as the popularity, the etablished and often outrageous style can lead to many different configurations that its truly hard to get board by the look in general.