Extraordinary Crowns: The History of the Black Woman’s Church Hat

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Go into any African-American church on Sunday, and you’ll see women wearing them. Those big, bold church hats.   The hats became popular after slavery. Black women wanted to look their best when worshiping and the hats were considered a way to honor God. But wearing them isn’t just about fashion. It’s a deeply rooted African tradition that has both spiritual and cultural significance.  The hats are considered a woman’s crown and they symbolize triumph over hardship.

The sound of praise fill the heavens outside of Pilgrim Baptist Church. As the 150th psalm says: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.
So when the choir starts to rock and the congregation is on its feet, for the women inside the temple, faith and fashion become one. “Women felt when they came into the house of the lord that wanted to give there best, look their best. So they put on their best outfit which included that hat,” said Connie Steele of Pilgrim Baptist Church.

From the simple, to the big, women worshiping in hats is a tradition that’s been passed down through the years in the Black church. “My grandmother wore hats so I came up in the ear where ladies wore hats all the time,” said Steele.

The hat tops off the Sunday outfit and bring dignity to the women who wear them. Hats are a statement of what it means to be a black church-going woman in America. “It makes us feel independent. It makes us feel fabulous,” said Steele.

Because of the Bible the hats are more than just a fashion statement. 1st Corinthians, Chapter 11, Verse 5 says: Every woman that pray or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonor her head,it is even all one as if she were shaven.

The glowing sequence, feathers, diamonds and pearls. Church hats go from the usual to the outrageous and the women who wear them don’t just one one or two. “Its an art its a wearable art,” said Guy Smith. Smith’s mother, Erma Jean Smith, owned more than 150 hats.
She died in 2016. Now her hats are on display at Roanoke’s Harrison Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The display is not just about fashion but a look back at history. “It’s more than about one individual.  Its like a significant part of the African-American female culture. It gives people an opportunity to get a little better insight of some of the struggles that women of different time periods had,” said Smith.

Hats tell a story about the woman of god underneath. They are an expression of the Black women’s belief and themselves even when the messages from society her told them otherwise. Slave owners shaved black women’s heads as a way to strip them of their individuality and to show dominance over the slave. Even while on the plantation, Black women used head dresses to distinguish themselves. “They would do different things with wraps they would wear in the field, different straw hats so they could express themselves,” said Smith.

Wearing hats to worship is a tradition rooted in African-Culture. Many of the hats are designed after west African hair dressings, filled with braids and beads. After slavery as the black middle class began to emerge,  the hat symbolized status and God’s blessings in the woman’s life. “It was a coming of age for African-American women. They had worked during the week cleaning peoples homes or in the factory and Sunday was a day they could celebrate,” said Smith.

But if you take a look around the sanctuary, the  Sunday hat sorority has a vintage appeal. Many of the women 50 and older still wear the hats but very few of the younger women embrace the tradition. “A lot of girls that are growing up didn’t have grandmothers who wore the hats in the church so I think because they didn’t grow up in that atmosphere they really don’t realize the importance of significance of a hat,” said Steele

Now it’s up to the mothers of the church to carry on bold and bright tradition of women worshiping in hats. Traditions rooted in faith love and hope, that the younger women will top their heads, giving glory to god.

The church hat exhibit at The Harrison Museum in Roanoke — is called Extraordinary Crowns.  They will be on display until late April.
The museum will host a lecture about the history of the Crowns and a hat showcase on April 20th.

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