The History of the Church Hat

A Colorful Command

Who knew that a Bible commandment could come in so many colors? When the Apostle Paul declared that women must cover their heads during worship (1 Corinthians 11:15), African American women took his decree, attached feathers and bows to it, and turned it into something beautiful.

Dressing Up

In the early 20th century, Sunday church services provided African American women who worked as domestic servants or in other subservient roles the only real chance to break away from their drab, dreary workday uniforms. They favored bright colors and textured fabric — the bolder the better, really — and topped their outfits off with a flamboyant hat, or "crown."

Praise the Lord

Elaborate outfits also served as a way to honor God. Women showed respect and reverence by dressing up for church. In earlier times, slaves might wash their one set of clothes; field workers might decorate a straw hat with a ribbon or flower to look more formal. And a new hat, when she could afford it, made the wearer look and feel completely different.

A Symbol of Success

Hats also served as status symbols. "Once you got up on your feet and started working, you bought some hats," said boutique owner Audrey Easter, in Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book, Crowns. Many women match their hats with their pocketbooks and gloves.

Holiday Hats

Easter and Mother's Day are the two biggest hat days in black churches; many women purchase a new hat just for the occasion. Prices range from around $100 to over $1,000 for a custom-made design. Most women have more than one hat and it's not uncommon for the most devout crown-wearers to own more than 50.

Hat Tricks

Don't wear a hat wider than your shoulders. Don't wear a hat that is darker than your shoes. If your hat has feathers, make sure they are never bent or broken. Sequins don't look good in the daytime. Easter hats should be white, cream or pastel — even if it's still cold outside. For a look that is both elaborate and demure, try a chapel veil.

Crowns

In 2002, Regina Taylor's off-Broadway production Crowns — based on Cunningham and Marberry's book by the same name — followed the lives of six Southern African-American women through the hats they wore to church. The play discussed hat etiquette (no hat borrowing), style (you shouldn't look lost in it), and attitude (you have to have one in order to wear a hat well).

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