Black Joy

Sunday’s Best: the evolution of the Black lady church hat

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Imagine it’s Easter Sunday: You walk through the church doors to a rainbow of bold extraordinary hats painted throughout the pews. As you find a seat, hints of cocoa and shea butter tingle your nose, and before you sit down someone has already handed you a program and welcomed you into the sanctuary.

The Black women’s church aesthetic has always centered hats and over time they have developed from patterned headwraps to elaborate wide-brimmed beauties.

The evolution of church hat style evolved from African cultures to fashion icons like Madam C.J. Walker and now to second-generation milliners, designers and makers of women’s hats, like Meeka Robinson Davis of One-Of-A-Kind Hats.

“Hats have been a rich part of African women’s culture. We have always had this feeling of expressing ourselves through dress and a part of that has been hats. A well-dressed lady has always had on a hat,” Robinson Davis told Reckon.

But when did the tradition begin, and how has it evolved over the course of history?

It all started in the Motherland

The history of Black women and headwear can be traced back to the early 1700s in sub-Saharan Africa and quickly became a staple for African women representing communal identity and individuality.

Whether it was Nubian women adding rich fabrics and flowers to their head wraps or Nigerian queens choosing finer fabrics for lightweight pieces, Black women, particularly in parts of West Africa have expressed their beauty and style through hats and head wraps for hundreds of years.

On some occasions, headwraps were indicators of women’s marital status, a sign of respect when visiting their in-laws and as well as protection from the sun.

One hat and two occasions

The highly respected headwraps designed from the creativity of Black women in Africa were given a different meaning in America, one of subservience. Enslaved Black women in America were expected to abide by a dress code where the only acceptable headpiece was the ‘negro cloth.’

Under the 1735 Negro Act dictating what enslaved Africans in America were and weren’t permitted to wear, the ‘negro cloth,’ consisting of materials like duffels, kerseys, osnaburg, blue linen, coarse calicoes, checked cotton or scotch plaids reinforced social distinctions among enslaved Africans in America and enslavers.

Headwraps labeled as the ‘negro cloth’ and straw/burlap hats soon became multi-functional as a way to protect Black women’s heads and hair from the sun and as a way to show reverence and honor to God.

Enslavers purposefully used the Bible to manipulate and indoctrinate enslaved Africans in America with white Christian nationalism ideology through an array of scriptures. To enforce obedience to the ‘negro cloth’ and other headwear, they leaned into scripture from Paul the Apostle in Corinthians:

“For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.”

A symbol of success

After the Reconstruction era and into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Black women, particularly in the middle class, created an aesthetic and style of hats with bold colors, wide brims, lace, rhinestones and large feathers.

The more detailed and elaborate the design, the more it symbolized success and an affluent lifestyle – these hats were worn in speakeasies and even churches. This era also produced Black milliners, like Mildred Blount, who created hats for the movie Gone With The Wind and actress Joan Crawford.

Respectability politics, but make it fashion

During the Civil Rights Era, what many Black folks wore to church is also what they wore to protest, from Black men in three-piece suits and dress shoes to Black women with white dresses or dress suits and a hat, cocked to the side for shade and style.

A lot of hats, and especially the fashion choices from this time, weren’t only worn for church but also as a form of assimilation into a white world that integration had created space for.

Black leaders during the Civil Rights movement dressed in the style of what whiteness had established as acceptable at the time. This was also a strategic calculation. Civil rights leaders wanted protestors dressed in their ‘Sunday’s best’ fashion, to juxtapose civility with the violence they would face from police while exercising their First Amendment rights.

Hats designed with fewer details, muted colors and flatter shapes were viewed as more socially acceptable.

“If they were going to be these leaders and speak in these spaces that were very white, for them to be heard, they dressed in a very specific way that allowed the information to be digested,” Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a fashion historian and curator told Refinery29 in September 2020.

Does this match?

Matching a white hat to a white dress suit for communion Sunday or a purple hat to a purple dress suit for Easter Sunday became the norm from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Similar embellishments of feathers, rhinestones and ribbons from the Harlem Renaissance were again a popular part of hat designs during this time.

Southern women in their church hats set the trend — Craig Mayberry, author of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, produced a timeless Black household book featuring images and stories about the importance of church hats to hundreds of Black women.

“Church ladies have always been couture, avant-garde and out of the box. We’ve led fashion over the years because we dress every week and we don’t follow fashion trends. We set the trends and so a lot of your first ladies also set the tone for their churches,” Robinson Davis, the hatmaker said.

The girlies want a headband

Black women will never stop wearing hats, whether to church or out and about. This year the church hat style, according to Robinson Davis, will be fascinators emulating the British headband aesthetic.

“They’re doing a lot of those styles because they’re easy to wear with a pantsuit or a dress and it’s really cute and it’s easy to be worn and it doesn’t mess up your hair,” Robinson Davis told Reckon.

With a modern look and minimalistic approach to hats, the 2020 era of Black women’s headwear will emulate simplicity.

Alexis Wray

Alexis Wray |

I report on HBCUs and Blackness, working to introduce voices and perspectives of students, alumni and community members that amplify the experiences of Black life on and off campus.

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