Every Mother’s Day I think about my Madea, even though she has gone home to be with the Lord, I still reflect on those days in Tchula, Mississippi where we would put on our Sunday Best to go to church. My Madea had this motto ” a woman is never fully dressed until she puts on her pantyhose, pearls, gloves, and her church hat.” The hat is a deeply rooted tradition in the African-American community, wearing flamboyant hats to church has both spiritual and cultural significance.
The centuries-old custom continues to flourish throughout the Southern U.S. and in strong black Northern communities. The dress hats, which are beautifully fabricated and extravagantly decorated, have evolved into an art form and an important cultural symbol.
Prior to the 20th century, most American Christian women commonly followed Corinthians 1:11 and covered their heads in worship. For early African-Americans, God’s house was not only a sanctuary of hope and salvation in a brutal world, but it was also one of the few places where they were allowed to hold important positions of leadership. Sunday was thus a day of worship and celebration. African-American women traded in their drab aprons and knotted head wraps for brightly colored dresses and straw hats gaily decorated with fresh flowers, ribbons and feathers. These heaven-reaching hats were designed to “catch God’s eye” in hopes He would hear their prayers.
During and after slavery, black women who worked as maids and servants broke away from their uniforms on Sunday and wore decorated hats to service. The hat, no matter what material it was made from, was adorned with ribbons, bows and flowers. It was the black woman’s one day of individualism. Since then, church hats have gotten bigger and bolder.
As African-Americans gained greater freedoms, the crown evolved into an important status symbol. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, the growing middle class celebrated their economic successes by purchasing flashy hats and wearing them everywhere, from the office to the speakeasy. Black women appeared in church flaunting colorful, wide-brimmed hats lined in silk, sparkling with rhinestone and trimmed with flower garlands, sassy feathers and delicate lace.
Worn with the head held high, African-American women strut with “hattitude” while sporting these crowns.
A little instruction on wearing church hats from the book Crowns:
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.
Photo’s Credit: Time Magazine