A church hat, as flamboyant as it may be, is no mere fashion accessory. It’s a cherished African-American custom, one observed with boundless passion by many black women of various religious denominations.
Hats do conceal but mostly they reveal a great deal about those who wear them. The hat speaks for a woman long before she utters a word. It’s her way of saying that as she goes about her day praising and doing the works of the Lord, she is honoring God by looking extra good. The tradition of wearing elaborate, beautiful hats on Sunday morning to church is more than a fashion statement; it’s a cultural form of expression for generations of African-American women. It is a tradition that blends high fashion, deep spirituality, and respect for our ancestors.
Every Sunday, in scores of African-American churches, faith and fashion unite. On display are hats of every description – from the demure to the why’d-you-have-to-sit down-in front-of-me variety. These concoctions of fabric, feathers, and what-not have been fussed over, treasured, even coveted, by women of all ages.
The generations of people identifying with this tradition are not only the “hat” women but also the children and men in their lives. This form of cultural expression is not strictly a trend of the past; African-American women across the country still participate in this cultural and fashion display weekly.
Hats in the African-American culture have a definite correlation with the African tradition of adorning the head for worship. Slave women, for example, would cover their heads with bandanas, giving them that special touch by decorating them with wildflowers.
There is a biblical reference to the importance of a woman covering her head in church for more than just style. Hats, commonly referred to as crowns, have not only set a style for African-American women, but they also have continued as a religious tradition. As stated in the Holy Bible: (I Corinthians 11:5) “But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved.”
Covering your head has turned into a fashion statement for African-American women. Hats have served a purpose to cover the woman’s head in church, but their styles and fashion have become their own statements.
Hats have been a wonderful expression of black women’s belief in themselves, even when the messages from society were quite different. After slavery, there were “whites-only” signs everywhere. During the course of “live-in”, domestic or other menial service, African-American women had to wear specific uniforms for their duties. In the transition to Sunday morning, sometimes the only day they had off, African-American women began to dress very fashionably for Sunday church services.
Dressing up in high fashion was a source of pride for many African-American women who had to wear uniforms for work six days a week. So if you’d have something to show off – and be in style – you’d wear it in church. The church was the place where black women’s moral character, beauty and style was openly recognized and appreciated.
At church a black woman could walk down the aisle holding her head up high, topped with a fancy and heavily decorated hat wearing a style that reflected her African-American heritage. The hat became an instant symbol that you had arrived and were on you feet. The hats, therefore, became more and more flamboyant because the more trinkets and adornments that you could add to your hat gave the impression that you were prosperous.
As with everything else in the African-American community, the symbol of hats as meaning you have arrived has spread to the rest of American culture. Hattitude gives you a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat. There is something special about you. If a hat says a lot about a person, it says even more about a people—the customs they observe, the symbols they prize, and the fashions they fancy.
For some it is just fashion but for the women of church, it’s our way of saying, “Look how God is blessing me!”