Aretha Franklin stole the show on Inauguration Day with a bow-tied example of African American church hat culture. TIME examines the accessory and where it came from.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. In 1958, the dress code at the predominantly black Bennett College For Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, required all young women to wear hats, gloves and heels to church and whenever they left campus. The college’s president bent the rules only once: when the students protested a Woolworth’s store because their lunch counter wouldn’t serve blacks. “It took a civil rights movement to get those hats off our heads,” remembered Ollie McDowell (pictured below). 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. On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people participated in the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a startlingly young Bob Dylan sang folk songs, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed a rendition of “How I Got Over” in an elaborate flowered hat. The 1970s and subsequent decades brought new hair trends such as the Afro, braids and the hair weave. Not all styles fit nicely under hats, however. In recent decades church hats have been largely a habit of the older generation — women “of a certain age.” 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).
Photos from the book Crowns, by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.