Hat Attitude

by Farrah D. Austin, Photography by Joseph De Sciose

It’s Sunday morning at African American churches across the city of Birmingham. On this day, mature ladies in glitzy hats file into church sanctuaries like festival queens at a coronation. Their brims laced with rhinestones, feathers, or clusters of silk flowers attract admiring gazes, coos of excitement and the occasional roll of the eyes from less dolled-up parishioners. But these hatted beauties are outnumbered by a growing number of hatless women. Younger, pressed-for-time and less inclined to keep with tradition, they comprise the majority of female worshipers in the black church today.  Such modern mavens view hat wearing as a passing fad—something their grandmothers did. “It’s too much fuss to have a hat for every Sunday outfit,” they say. “They make you look older,” some moan. “They’re too expensive,” argue others.

The latter could be true. Price tags for hats can range from $200 to $5000. And it takes quite a financial commitment to acquire a slew of fine church hats. But for the elder women who love this look the investment is about more than just money. “I think when women wore hats it was out of reverence to God in the church,” Devoralynn McGhee says. At age 49, Devoralynn is one of the youngest hat wearers at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “Back when I grew up a woman’s head had to be covered. Traditionally and doctrinally we were told that. It was about humbling yourself and being submitted to God. I don’t think the ministers are teaching that anymore.”

Such teaching came from a passage in First Corinthians where the apostle Paul said women should cover their heads as an act of worship. But it’s the black Baptist church that added the glamour to it. “They are the ones holding up that banner more than anyone else,” says Ursula Kemp of Good News Bible Fellowship Church in Bessemer. “You find the majority of hat wearers in more traditional Baptist churches.”

During segregation, these houses of worship were often the center of black social life. When blacks couldn’t meet and dress up anywhere else, they could always express themselves freely at church. Everything from Civil Rights meetings to etiquette classes and teenage dances were held at church. So donning a hat and gloves for any and every church function was the norm.

After integration, certain community practices were abandoned over time. In the quest to gain acceptance, the African American community started to lose some of its individuality. And the hat culture started to fade. “We as African Americans often want to do things too much like other cultures instead of being true to ourselves,” laments Catherine Terry of New Life Interfaith Ministries in Bessemer. “I’ve been to the finest restaurants and women from other cultures almost kiss my hands. They treat me like royalty when they see me in my hats. I’m not going to dress down just because that seems to be the norm for everyone else.”

Cotton’s Department store in Ensley caters to women like Miss Terry who refuse to relinquish their feathery crowns. Family owned and operated for more than 80 years, Cotton’s is the only true hat store in the city (they also carry attire, shoes and accessories). The others closed shop years ago as trends moved away from hats. To accommodate customers, Cotton’s offers payment plans and features an outlet across the street from its main store. One of the biggest hat wearers in Birmingham, Ann Carr, has worked at Cotton’s for over 19 years. Rumor has it that she has almost 300 hats that she keeps in a storage facility at her home. But a lady never tells. “I still have the same hat I wore to my husband’s church when we got engaged,” she says. “I just hate to see this tradition die out. The folks in my age group will be wearing hats on their deathbed. It’s just that serious.”

Hat wearing became such a spectator sport at New Pilgrim Baptist Church that the Birmingham Museum of Art hosted a 2002 photographic exhibit called “Hat Ladies” to honor the phenomenon. Ironically it was a male admirer, Elias Hendricks, who pushed the idea. “Black Southern women single-handedly kept the hat industry going,” jokes Elias. “So I told photographer Julie Moos that if you really want to see southern women in hats you need to go to Men’s Day at New Pilgrim Baptist Church.” Other than Easter, Men’s Day is the next largest hat wearer holiday at the ministry. Six months later the exhibit was born.

During Men’s Day, the center aisle transforms into a catwalk at New Pilgrim. Elder women in hats big enough to cradle a baby greet others participants wearing brims dripping with sequins, beads, and bling. All the flash is enough to scramble a NASA satellite and make a first-time onlooker woozy. But that’s part of the fun, part of the heritage, part of the worship. These regal women have perfected the art of being a lady and don’t mind showing off their feminine theatrics. “The young men especially love to see the ladies in their hats,” says Mrs. Nellie Merritt a member of New Pilgrim who was photographed for the “Hat Ladies” exhibit. She’s also an employee at Cotton’s Department store. “So many of the girls today are too casual,” she adds. “They don’t even wear stockings.”

Seniors like Mrs. Merritt fear the trend toward a casual church society means the death of hat culture and social graces. Older African Americans attest that this nonchalant attitude about personal appearance has led to much of society’s deterioration. Is it possible that when some of the hats started coming off, the manners left too? Elias Hendricks thinks so. “This march to get young people in church by any means necessary without teaching them the finer graces of serving the Lord is not helping them. We don’t have enough elders willing to teach the young people anymore. In African society elders are the most regally dressed. At one time in the black community young people knew who the elders were by the way they dressed. That extra gentility is something we should recapture. Now we have too many elders trying to dress like young folks. And the children are confused. They don’t know who the adults are.”

But all isn’t lost. A few youngsters are taking up the call and wearing hats despite the changes in fashion. They, like their mothers and grandmothers, see the value in keeping this tradition. It also doesn’t hurt that wearing a hat makes them look and feel better about themselves. “I move differently in a hat,” says Tamiko Elliston, 44, the youngest hat wearer at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “My swagger is more graceful, more elegant. I push my shoulders back and hold my head higher. I didn’t wear them when I was young. But by the by the time I got in my ’30s I decided to wear what makes me feel good. Hats make me feel like more of a lady.”

6 Responses to “Hat Attitude”

  1. ella king says:

    I’m a hat lover.Wears hats to church often.Please please send me the website for this pink hat and more.
    I do hat shows for all occasion.

  2. Very interesting article! These women are beautiful in their awesome hats! I wanna see more big hat culture! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Autumn Hines says:

    Woman Of God, would you please forward me thee store name or person who makes this hat for my beautiful and smart. daughter. Thank You

    • Laura Moore says:

      I’am so interested in purchasisng the pink flowered hat it’s me. Please for purchase info as soon as possible!

      Laura M. Moore

  4. Ms. Terry says:

    I need the address of the Hats stores in Birmingham, AL.

  5. Carolyn Boston says:

    Could you share The Mother’s Name donning the Pale Pink Hat. – Resembles A Mother From Washington DC !!!

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