Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Fewer African American Women Wear Hats In Church

Edited by Azizi Powell

The purpose of this post isn't a commentary of why African American women or any other women wear hats in church. Instead, the purpose of this post is to share my thoughts about why it appears that fewer African American women wear hats in church now than they (we) used to.

This video provides some background to my comments.

Tribute to COGIC Women

19SOCOGIC11, Uploaded on Sep 17, 2010

A Tribute to COGIC Women, and their hats
Here's a comment [with minor revisions) that I posted to that video's viewer comment thread in response to a question about the country these women featured in the video are from:
"These women are from the United States. The video celebrates the tradition of African American Church Of God In Christ (COGIC) women wearing fashionable hats in church and at religious events.

The custom of females wearing stylish hats to church is (or was) also practiced in some other Black American churches besides COGIC churches. It's my experience as a Black Baptist (in the USA) that nowadays only a few Black women wear hats in church on Sundays or at other church events, even during the Easter service when it was traditional for women (and girls) to wear their most stylish hats".

Here's a portion of a review of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's 2000 photo-book about the custom of African American women wearing fancy hats in church:
"[For countless numbers of Black women] a church hat, flamboyant as it may be, is no mere fashion accessory; it's a cherished African American custom, one observed with boundless passion by black women of various religious denominations. A woman's hat speaks long before its wearer utters a word. It's what Deirdre Guion calls "hattitude...there's a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat. There's 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.

Photographer Michael Cunningham beautifully captures the self-expressions of women of all ages-from young glamorous women to serene but stylish grandmothers. Award-winning journalist Craig Marberry provides an intimate look at the women and their lives. Together they've captured a captivating custom, this wearing of church hats, a peculiar convergence of faith and fashion that keeps the Sabbath both holy and glamorous."
A 12 page Time magazine photo essay "Crowns: A Brief History Of Church Hats" That book provides a 12 page overview of the tradition of Black (African American) women wearing hats to church.

Here's an excerpt from that article:
"Letting it Loose
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." [page 9 of 12],29307,1874131_1830150,00.html
I applaud that Times article, and I agree that since the 1970s significantly fewer African American church women wear hats and those who do are mostly older (about sixty years and up). However, I question the reasons that article gives for the decreased numbers of Black church women who wear hats in church.

The 1970s was noted for its large afro hairstyles for African American females & males. However, even during that decade down to the present, only a small percentage of African Americans wore/wear their hair in an afro or any other natural style. And it seemed to me that most of those African American women who wore afros in the 1970s were under forty years old and a considerable percentage of those females weren't church goers. I also think that even as early as the 1970s, wearing elaborate hats to church was becoming largely an "old women's custom". Besides that, it wasn't so much that Black women who wore their hair in an afro couldn't find a hat which would "fit them nicely". Females like me who wore their hair in large afros back in the 1970s wouldn't have worn a hat over our fros (except for a "gele" - a material wrapped in a West African style) because wearing a hat over that afro would have defeated the idea of showing off our healthy, wide 'fro.

Secondly, few African American women in the 1970s to the present time wore/wear their hair in braids to church - if by "braids" that author means "cornbraids". If the author means (hair) extensions that lengthen one's hair, then it wouldn't be difficult to find a hat to fit over that hairstyle. That said, if the braids are elaborate on the top and/or the sides of the hair, then the women wouldn't want to hide that hairstyle under a hat. Similarly to my comments about extensions, wearing a hair weave wouldn't make it difficult to find a hat that would fit nicely.

I think that one reason why fewer African American women wear hats in church is that that custom has become separated what was and still is in some congregations/denominations considered to be its scriptural command: 1 Corinthians 11:6. Another reason why fewer African American women wear hats in church is that styles change.

Wearing fancy hats has largely become an old Black women's custom. The decrease in attention given to hat wear in Black churches reflects the decline in consumer interest in formal hat wear for females and males in the United States' general population. As an indication of that decline in the market for hat wear, even girls' Easter bonnets are largely a thing of the past.

Furthermore, the decreased number of African American females who wear hats to church reflects the loosening of the dress code in many American churches. Not only can females come to church without a head covering, but we can attend church without wearing white gloves that used to accompany the hat. And females can attend Sunday and other church services wearing pants (including jeans) & a top.

I also think that it's important to note that African American women weren't/aren't the only women to wear head coverings in church. Here's a comment from
"Why do black women wear hats to church?
I think it's neat but I wanted to ask some black ladies why they wear a hat while in church."

happygael answered in 2010:
"Men bared their heads in church women covered their head in church.
It goes back to the days of Knighthood when men removed their helmets*
Women covered their hair because hair was always considered a woman's crowning glory. White women used to cover their hair also when attending church. They used to carry a small scarf just in case there was a lunchtime or an emergency visit to church.

My mother and every other woman in our neighborhood used to wear hats to church."
When I was a child in New Jersey in the 1950s I remember this custom of some women putting a large white handkerchief or a scarf over their head during church service as a substitute for a hat because -as I was told- "Women are supposed to cover their heads in church because their head needs that extra protection from the power of the Holy Ghost.".
As a reminder, this post is not about why women wear head coverings in Christian churches. That said, I don't think the reason why men don't wear head coverings in Christian churches has anything to do with knighthood.

There are a total of eight comments to date for that particular yahoo answers page. Most of the people who answered this question responded that Black women wore church hats because of tradition, but that tradition is old fashioned now and mostly it's only old women who wear hats to church.

Then there was a commenter named Angel who had to go there, writing in 2010 that [Black women wore hats] "to cover their nappy heads."

In the fine tradition of Southern women, I say to her "Bless your heart".


The website of photographer Michael Cunningham, the photographer whose work is showcased in Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats

**** This blogger shares how the Biblical verse that has been interpreted as long hair being a woman's crowning glory has been taken out of context to cause self-esteem issues for Black females.
Click for the second video to see the middle age and older women in a Jamaican church wearing hats but not most of the younger women.

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  1. I never think about this thing. But by read this post I have to think some time “wow, really inserting things about the woman's hat". Whatever there is another thing should care about that anyone buy hat that is choosing a matching hat to your dress. Recently I was made a custom dress for me from online tailor as and also shop a matching hat for that dress. But never know much why American women are wear hat. Thanks for share this information with us.

    1. Thanks for sharing this comment, Janilla Milton.

      This post is not only about the custom of American women wearing hats to church, but also about how Black American women used to wear hats to church as fashion statements as well as for religious reaons.

      It also wrote this post to note my observations that that custom has changed and far fewer Black American women-and probably also far fewer non-Black American women- nowadays wear hats to church. I think that this reflects the fact that in the United States it is no longer fashionable to wear a matching hat as part of a woman's -or a man's- outfit.

    2. I have always worn hats to church. I love seeing women look feminine. I think a lot of women have lost the desire to look like a real lady since all they wear are pants. Even to church.

    3. Thanks for your comment Anonymous.

      I was surprised the first time I saw women wearing pants to church. I much prefer people dressing up to go to church, but then again, I don't like the way that going to church so often is a fashion competition.

  2. My grandmother and mother both wore hats to church (white folk attending the local Episcopalian "high church"). I think it was something some denominations did before the late 1960s - when folk music services and casual dress became fashionable, and near the time when the big split in the Episcopal Church occurred (between the traditional Anglicans and everyone else). I see the dress thing in church as a reflection of the changing attitudes towards tradition and ritual.

    1. Thanks for your comment, muse.

      I'm an African American woman who was raised as a Baptist (in New Jersey, in the 1950s-mid 1960s). I vaguely recall the custom that females (including girls) were always suppose to have their hair covered when they were in the church sanctuary. I even remember someone giving my mother or some other woman a handkerchief to put over her head because she didn't have a hat on. But it seems to me that the only time girls (including teenage girls) really wore hats in church was during Easter services and maybe a few weeks afterwards. But during the mid 1960s some women would wear fancy big hats or "pill hats" during church service in the spring even after Easter. And it seems to me that after the 1960s fewer and fewer African American women have worn hats in church. Now in the churches I attend it's very rare to see any females with hats on.

      I agree that this is a reflection of the changing attitudes towards religious tradition and ritual. But I also think that hats-apart from winter hats worn outside for warmth- males or females wearing hats isn't part of the fashionable anymore.