Published on March 7th, 2018 | by Nicole Vear
Women’s History Month – Iconography of The Church Hat
The crown. The mental altar. The highest point of the body closest to the heavens. From hairstyles to head coverings, people across lands and different faiths practice grooming and celebrating this sphere of the body. If the face is what others look at in determining a first impression, the crown comes in at a close second.
No people are immune to engaging in acts of adornment, embellishment or ornamentation of the head as reflections of their culture. The heads of people in spiritual communities reflect their relationship to their environment whether the expression is big and bold or minimalist and simple.
Under the enslavement of African people in America, head covering in a form of a simple scarf was to protect the head from harsh conditions but also to suppress cultural continuity and pride. In the case of the state of Louisiana, the laws that mandated African women to cover their elaborate hairstyles (yes it was official under the Tignon Laws) were turned upside down. As with Black people globally, the Black women of Louisiana circumvented the restrictions and made head wrapping a political, spiritual and fashionable act. Adornment was the name of the game and not only did they turn the law over on its head, but they turned heads – big time.
Whether an Egyptian donning a headdress, an Ifa initiate, or a congregant at Abyssinia Church, the covenant of Black women protecting and embellishing their crowns is historic and universally practiced. From a straw hat laced with ribbon to the elaborate custom-made headgear, Black women in America’s churches have worn them as various symbols. With the support of women like hat designer Mae Reeves in the 1940s and 50s and milliner Vanilla Beane, the hats worn by Black women in churches became an elaborate affair. Traditionally no Easter, Mother’s Day or spiritual gathering has been without this cultural statement. As times have changed the landscape in which this custom has lived, we take this moment in celebrating women by taking a nod at the church hat.