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Ladies' Hats Make Comeback In Church Culture

First Posted: 11/17/10 12:55 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:15 PM ET

Christian Hat Culture

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Religion News Service

ST. LOUIS (RNS) When St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians nearly 2,000 years ago, it's unlikely he had the $599 Satin Ivory & Black Crystal Tower from Shellie McDowell Millinery in mind.

"Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head," Paul wrote. "It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved."

It's a fragment of Scripture that Christians have variously ignored and revered ever since. As 40,000 members of the Church of God in Christ gathered here for their Holy Convocation, exuberant reverence for Paul's words was on full display.

"Our ladies do wear their hats," said Church of God in Christ Presiding Bishop Charles Blake. "They have that in common with the Queen of England."

Indeed, more than a third of the nearly 200 exhibitors' booths were peddling a vast array of women's hats, referred to in some circles as "crowns." Men in sharp dark suits carried two or three drum-shaped boxes as they trailed their be-hatted wives zigzagging through the convention center exhibitor floor.

"I come every year to get a look at the hats," said Kay Slack of Los Angeles. "A hat says you're a lady. It says you care."

Blake said the preponderance of elaborate hats at the annual Holy Convocation is in line with the saints' -- as COGIC members are called -- tradition of dressing up to worship God.

"When you come before the Lord, we think you should be as well-dressed as when you come before the president or any dignitary," Blake said.

Victor Paul Furnish, a New Testament scholar emeritus at Southern Methodist University, has written that Paul's instruction to the Christian women of Corinth to veil themselves likely comes from the notion that loose, flowing hair was associated with promiscuous women or
pagan priestesses.

COGIC is the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the country with 6.5 million members. But it's not just black Protestant churches that adhere to a head-covering ritual.

Some streams of Judaism believe that wearing a head covering in a synagogue signals a reverence for God above. Traditionalist Catholic women sometimes wear lace veils on top of their heads during Mass. Head coverings are a well-known practice for some Muslim women.

The hats on display in St. Louis are about adhering to biblical principles, but they're also about tradition in the century-old Christian denomination.

"I was born in this church, and for as long as I can remember, women had their heads covered," said Delores Peterson, 55, of Houston. "That's what you do when you're in the house of the Lord."

Diane Johnson, minding her daughter's booth, "Diane's Hats," said she had been wearing hats to church since she was 18.

"I remember being a little girl, and seeing my grandma wearing a hat and thinking, 'I can't wait until I'm old enough to wear a hat,"' Johnson said. "An important part of this church for women is to educate younger women. We're supposed to train the next generation of women, and passing on this tradition is part of that."

Gwendolyn O'Neal, a professor of consumer, apparel and retail studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said the tradition of fancy hats in black churches actually predates African-American Christianity.

O'Neal, whose research focuses on African-American aesthetic of dress, said part of that aesthetic "can be traced to West African cultures during the enslaving years."

The head is central to West African art, she said, typified in drawings of people with exaggerated and highly adorned headdresses, especially in African rituals where "adornment of the head is extremely significant."

But the recession has also hit hats.

Paula Ellis, store manager for Shellie McDowell Millinery, said her hats sell for $59 to $800. In recent years, Ellis said, it would not have been unusual for women to buy two or three hats during the conference.

"Now they're looking to buy just one good one," she said.

Age is also a factor. For a long time, church hats were the domain for older women. Recently, though, hats have become more fashionable, and younger women are donning them, said Ann Dillon, 80, who's owned Ann's Hats in downtown St. Louis with her sister, Bessie Hicks, 82, for
35 years.

While older women still buy the majority of the hats -- which run from $20 to $200 -- younger women are becoming customers in greater numbers than ever before, Dillon said.

"When I started out in 1976, hats were out," she said. "Now hats are back."

Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.

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