Photos by Tommie Battle
As a culture, Black People have and will continue to take every opportunity to get dressed…As in dressed up—for any and every occasion. We create trends that have become the blueprint for virtually every dimension of society, from language and music to the visual arts. It is our Art. The way we dress and present ourselves is one of the purest forms of self-expression—of both resistance and joy.
Church hats, also known as Church crowns, are THE accessory to elevate your basic suit or church dress. Often these hats are bold, adorned with feathers, jewels, or bows, in vibrant colors with contrasting ribbons. Church Hats push the boundaries and allow us to speak without saying a word.
I can’t help but think about my ancestors and the generations before them, who were typically in service positions – maids, yardmen, butlers, and the like and, for the most part, attired in the clothing of servitude. Can you imagine how they must have felt come Sunday morning? The joy and anticipation of gathering with friends and family, and community, joined in fellowship and worship?
The aesthetics of wearing one’s “Sunday’s best,” connected black folks to the divine and replaced “the images of service.” Presenting ourselves well, made a visual statement consistent with our demands for social inclusion—which allowed Black folks to “alter the understanding of their bodies as tools for the benefit of others by visually changing their clothing.”
Enter the Church Hat – The embodiment of the Black Church Aesthetic.
In the book of Corinthians, the Apostle Paul issued head covering directives based upon social norms not recognized today, declaring that Christian women must cover their heads in alignment with the Jewish tradition of head-covering for both men and women (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). The tradition transformed by the contemporary black church as a metaphor for liberation continues to this day.
The African American Crown
Church hat culture is often associated with more mature generations but its influence is still evident today, amongst fashion lovers old and young. These hats have a rich and varied millinery history. In the ’60s young black women began rejecting the church crown tradition as a symbol of the Black bourgeoisie. Braids and afros in the 70’s popularized the head wrap and oversized newsboy caps. The Black Panther Party turned the beret, a traditional staple of a military uniform into a symbol of power and rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards. Church hats resurged in the 90s in the black community and most recently images of Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, inspire millennials and will for generations to come.
I spoke to Leona Foster, a member of Living Word & World Outreach Ministries in Minnesota, MN, an avid church hat devotee. Foster recalls receiving her first church hat in 1952, for an Easter Sunday service at the age of five. Her white straw saucer hat, with a tuck-away elastic chin strap, completed her powder blue dress and matching jacket. The entire choir had her parade and model for them before the start of service. Leona felt like a star.
With a total of 35 hats in her personal collection, carefully organized by occasion, she shares that she’s recently paired down her ‘dressy church hat’ collection, as her church has adapted, moving to a casual, come as you are, dress code. She says, “Hat lovers are an independent breed; they want to stand out from the crowd and are indifferent to trends. Church hats amplify your personality and inspire,” noting her influence on a close friend who has crossed over from a non-wearer to a mini-collector. Foster keeps her love and appreciation for gorgeous hats alive in “The Real Hat Divas” and “The Hat People” Facebook groups, where she and other members dream and reminisce about the days they gathered in fellowship and mutual admiration.
The influence of hats continues unabated – from unique fashion statements on Facebook, in church, or royal family watching. And the vibrant, flamboyant church hat is so much more than fashion – it represents both a woman’s crown and a statement of her faith. Church hat culture is an elevated art form, deeply rooted in tradition, and triumph.
By LAUREN D. PRESTON