Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The American church hat

Vicki Woods ponders the church hat. On Sundays in London we see many elderly black women on their way to church in hats, making a pleasant contrast with the ubiquitous weekend leisurewear all around

I'd forgotten there is a demographic of hatty people in America – millions strong. The matriarchs who pack out the gospel churches always wear the full fig (hats, gloves, best coats). And, of course, it was a church hat Franklin wore, out of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for a pretty churchy occasion.

So, I was wrong about the absence of milliners. The Queen of Soul is from Detroit; and so is her hatter Luke Song, who runs the business (started by his Korean-immigrant mother) for a clientele of "90 per cent churchgoing African-American women". He made Aretha's grey felt cloche with the hugely oversized bow for about $400 (£290); I thought she looked fabulous in it and I wasn't alone. Almost as soon as My Country 'Tis of Thee died away, Song was hit by a Diana wedding-dress-style tsunami and he's rushing out lookalikes (for $179) and buying up all the felt he can find. He told the Detroit Free Press that, "people are calling from England, asking for the hat, I'm shocked".

I'm mildly shocked, myself. We have the world's most fashionable hatters (Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy.) There's no call to start Googling "detroit hat aretha" in search of gala headgear, when people can pick up hats influenced by these brilliant milliners in any high street. (The Princess Royal bought her Queen Mother funeral hat in Debenhams.)

Alas, Aretha Franklin, at nearly 70, is not of an age to start a trend among young London fashionables for splashy over-sized church hats (more's the pity). Young women in this country don't wear hats any more, unless forced to by protocol. Even then, they prefer "fascinators", which are basically exaggerated hairslides with feathers, worn tipped over one ear. But Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy make those, too.


Anastasia said...

I love hats, I really do, I've loved Arethas and even Sarah Jessica Parkers green fascinator thingie she wore on the premiere of Sex and the City in London.
It's just that hats are incredibly difficult to coordinate in a normal life. I only have "weather hats", for rainy days when the wind is too strong for an umbrella. And I have sun hats, just in case there is a summer and I feel a bit awkward wearing my summer hats.
I watch movies from the 30ies/40ies with envy, when everyone wore a hat and it was the most normal and appropriate thing and noone ever would feel awkward.
Today it's so difficult to wear hats right, they can make you look like wearing a costume.

phyllis said...

A few months ago I blooged about hats on Sewing Divas in "The Lost Accessory":

"My theory as to why women no longer wear them boils down to this: we no longer wear hairstyles that accommodate a hat, that is, a style smooth at the back of the head with curls around the face. Bangs do not work with hats (ask me how I know this.) These days our hairstyle is our "head ornament" and I think our increasingly casual lives just don't give us that many opportunities to wear them, and so we don't know how to wear them anymore. These days when I see a woman in a hat she is just SO selfconscious and aware of what's on her head. It reminds of me seeing my Episcopal dad in a Yarmulke at my cousin's Bar Mitzvah. So where can we wear hats these days? Well...

Church. Our African-American sisters in particular really know how to rock this and I salute them for keeping the flame burning, but for the most part hats at church are a thing of the past where I live.
The Kentucky Derby. Not an event I'm likely to attend in the near future.
Weddings. Well, many of them are evening events now, and hats are kind of a daytime thing if you ask me.
Meeting Queen Elizabeth or the Pope. Same as the Kentucky Derby.

Not a long list. Plus, a hat is meant to seen, and since most of us drive everywhere, where would we wear hats on a daily basis? The mall? Costco? I can't envision it."

Linda Grant said...

Important point, Phyllis. Hairdressing has taken the place of hats. Though of course young men still wear hats (but not young women) - beanies, baseball hats, that kind of thing. Hats are a guy thing.

Toby Wollin said...

I wear hats every chance I get, especially once the weather gets warm enough that I'd be taking a lunchtime walk and I want some protection. I think the reason hat wearing has remained in the black community(and black men wear dress hats much more than white men do) is that this community has a sense of 'dressing for the occasion' - going to church has a history with them of being an occasion and they dress for it. Drive past any mostly white church and parishioners are walking in wearing everything from blue jeans and teeshirts to basically casual clothing - but again dressing for work in the US (except in large cities or specific careers)has become so chaotic that companies have to issue 'dress codes' so that people will know 'what NOT to wear'. I think that is very sad, indeed - but mimics the level of respect that many people feel for the work place and for attending religious services as well. I know many churches take the position that they feel lucky that anyone shows up for services at all, but I think that giving people a reason to get dressed up for it might be a way to get people to go, since we mostly don't have that opportunity in our daily lives.

Duchesse said...

When women wore hats for most occasions, so did men- real hats, not ball caps. Both sexes also wore gloves and overshoes; women wore serious foundation garments hosiery- never heels with bare legs.

Shorts were for the beach or sports.

There's been a general divestiture of clothing for both sexes over the last 50 years.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Hats flatten hair and that, apart from not being blessed with a swanlike neck, is why I don't wear them. If I had springy curls then I would, but tick a hat on my short, fine, straight hair and its ruined for the rest of the day.

lagatta à montréal said...

I don't think casual wear necessarily means lack of respect for one's workplace - look at the information technology industries where long hours and a lot of work are expected but a young man's very casual workwear is the norm.

And bare legs don't necessarily equal sloppy dressing. Look at the legs of well-dressed Parisiennes in the summertime - yep, no tights! Legs are carefully smoothed and pampered though.

I like hats, but other than my soft Angora wool béret, don't find any that suit me. I have a lot of curly hair (bobbed, no bangs), but also a big head, and they never fit me.

And then there are the cringeworthy things that scream OLD, such as most of the Tilley hats...

We won't even think of the dreadful things we have to wear here when it hits -25c...

But the Black American church hat (in Caribbean countries as well as the US, and among Caribbean immigrants up here) is a thing of wonder. I wonder if any histories of it have been written. It has a naughty twin, in the wild hats worn by Blues ladies. Aretha's hat draws on both sources.

lagatta à montréal said...

Look what I've found!

Crowns. Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.

ISBN: 978-0-385-50086-9 (0-385-50086-6) (Hope the link works - if not you can google the title and get the publisher, online bookshops and reviews.

from the random house site:
African American Women and Their Church Hats:

"Our crowns have already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them."
-James Baldwin

"We just know inside that we're queens. And these are the crowns we wear."
-Felecia McMillan, journalist

"Listen, never touch my hat! Admire it from a distance. Those are the hat queen rules, honey."
-Peggy Knox, child care provider

"You can flirt with a fan in your hand. You can flirt holding a cigarette, too. But a woman can really flirt with a hat."
-Dolores Foster, real estate agent (retired)

"My husband said, 'You don't need another hat. You don't have but one head.'"
-Dorothy Wynecroff, middle school teacher (retired)

miss cavendish said...

I love Crowns; I bring it into my African American literature class!

Hats have been a hot topic in my home since the inauguration. Mr. C is annoyed that President Obama didn't wear an elegant hat for the swearing-in ceremony. I wonder whether there's some sort of presidential protocol--no chapeaux for men during ceremonies?--or some unstated one--one is more of a *man* if he can take the cold. (I noted that the senior President Bush was bundled in a trapper hat--as he should have been, to keep warm.)

So: would it have been appropriate for President Obama to wear a hat, and why did he not do so?

Toby Wollin said...

Miss Cavendish - the first president to NOT wear a dress hat for his Inaugural Address was JFK. He wore a top hat TO the Inauguration but took it off for his speech. The demise of dress hat wearing in the US has been laid at his feet, though this book declares this to be a myth.

I think Barack Obama did not wear a dress hat to his Inaugural because ... he doesn't wear dress hats on any other occasions. Photographs show him in ball caps when he plays golf or works out, but he does not wear a dress hat. There is also THIS issue:

One person who DID wear a dress fedora to the Inauguration was Dick Cheney and frankly, he looked absolutely chilling in it. But I suppose we should all be grateful that he did not dress the way he had for a funeral of a country's leader in Europe several years ago, when he showed up in an Air Force Parka and knit cap.

lagatta à montréal said...

John F Kennedy has always been blamed (or praised) for the bareheaded tradition, though Snopes has unearthed evidence to the contrary, with both Kennedy and outgoing president Eisenhower in hight silk hats and cutaways - and of course Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing a pillbo hat.

I think a tall drink of water like Obama would look smashing in a hat.

But perhaps now hats are stereotyped as fusty, for the older generation (Bush Sr), or those who are not in the best of health (Ted Kennedy, also no longer young, but if not battling cancer, doubt he'd have worn one).

And it was bloody cold by Washington DC standards.

Miss Cavendish, I hope I can find Crowns somewhere here. Have you found any examples of hats (church, musicians' or others) playing a key role in any of the works of African-Aerican literature your students are reading?

Anonymous said...

Here in Australia skin cancer rates are soaring. We need hats, just when people are out of the practice of wearing them. I have a small hat collection, and wear them everyday until the UV levels come down. If they squash my hair, run my fingers through it. And there's nothing like the fun of buying a hat and dressing it up with ribbons and frippery.
I get compliments, too!

miss cavendish said...

Lagatta, Zora Neale Hurston deals with head coverings a bit in Their Eyes Were Watching God (though with a scarf, not a hat), and Nella Larsen uses clothes extensively in Quicksand (there's a significant church scene too). But neither do exactly what you're interested in . . .

Anonymous said...

How I wish that I could wear hats! I would do so all the time but I have a ridiculously small head, am short and overweight, and don't have the facial features for it. I look like I am wearing a flying saucer on my head and my face looks like a balloon :(

Anonymous said...

In my neck of the woods (North London) lots of women young and old wear stylish synagogue hats. But the female half of the congregation at the nearby evangelical church tend to dress down, not up, and are generally hatless.

Anonymous said...

I liked Aretha's hat, although no one else I know seems to share my opinion.

I love the idea of hats like that, but they are impractical for ordinary women: what are you supposed to do with the hat if you need to take it off? Give it to your lady's maid? Too many women today who purportedly want freedom and respect already choose impractical, over-priced clothing.

It's not a good idea to go backward.

Finally, although I'm African American, I'm not nostalgic about Sunday hats and the African American church. They represent blacks living separate and usually lesser lives, the subjugation of women and ignorance, reinforced by religion.

I wonder how many of the religious African American women in California who voted for Proposition 8 (a measure to ban gay marriage) wore hats like that. Their votes were said to have been a factor in the passage of that proposition.

Anonymous said...

As an African American, I am acutely aware of the old stereotype of blacks as overdressed -- all style and no substance. I have an almost visceral reaction to black people who are way over the top. The over-dressing for church thing represents the past.

Aretha Franklin got away with it because she's old and well-liked.

Belle de Ville said...

Anon beat me to it but I've found that the last two groups of women that still wear hats are African American and Orthodox Jewish. And these women are formidable.

Personally, I'm all for bringing back hats for ladies. They are stylish and offer natural protection from the sun.
We spend gazillions on facial products, injections and face lifts...after decades of of going bare headed. Why don't we just wear hats and stave off aging by a decade or so?

Ms Baroque said...

Hmm, I thought the Telegraph article a bit strange; Vicki Woods seemed to miss the point somehow.

Americans aren't "hatty" but then they have very largely forgotten how to dress altogether. It's all about casual wear, jeans, old flannel shirts, whatever. But the Ascot/wedding thing is English, anyway, not American. It never existed over there, I mean after the period when hats went out. Which is of course about the casualness, etc. The worst thing you could possibly do in the USA is look as if you tried to hard. MUCH worse than looking underdressed.

Over here, the African church ladies are certainly heavily in evidence in London, especially around both Dalston and Brockley where I am at the weekends, with their menfolk resplendent in either African dress or the suit equivalent of that hat. I hardly think this demographic is going to go looking for a hat at Debenhams or Philip Treacy; they have their milliners, just as the aforementioned Orthodox Jewish women do.

And I'm sure the people ringing Luke Song for a hat don't want just any hat; they want that hat.

This is not a hat for keeping off the sun! And it's not a hat for taking off when you're out. Its wearer, historically, would not have had a ladies' maid - although the African woman may have had a servant or two. Her American counterpart would more likely have been carrying a casserole somewhere, with her own gloved hands.

The poet Kei Miller has written about these church ladies, among whom he grew up in Jamaica. Marvellous and moving stuff. And yes - there is a new generation of women for whom this model is not a reflection of what their lives are all about. The hat - and the gloves that seem to go with it regardless of whether you can see her wearing any - are signs of a great, old-fashioned delicacy, the ability to be graceful even while being ox-like, able to do all the work, to carry the casserole and never spill a drop, and to move lightly throughout the day on little blue shoes while telling everybody loudly how vexed you are! Or, maybe, not. I just don't really think Aretha's inauguration hat has anything to do with the mass of white English women... it is so not an English hat.