She paid $5 to put it on layaway and made regular installments until she’d covered the $35 cost. When she finally clutched the gold braided handle of the pink floral hatbox and strutted out of the shop, she knew that this final touch to her pale pink Easter suit would place her among the best-dressed young ladies at Zion Baptist Church. And that would be no small feat, since proper church ladies back then all wore hats — their finest, of course, on Easter.
For generations, church sanctuaries across the nation on Sunday mornings, especially in black churches and especially on Easter, transformed into a collage of hats: straw ones, felt ones, velvet ones, every shape, size and color, with bows, jewels and feathers, reaching for the heavens.
But anyone walking into today’s services expecting to see a nonstop parade of women making fashion statements on their heads will be sorely disappointed. Many daughters and granddaughters of the women who made bold and flashy hats synonymous with the black church have not carried on the tradition.
Anita Saunders, 42, Elaine’s youngest daughter, grew up watching her mother’s generation flaunt their hats in church.
“And I always loved it,” says the Indianapolis resident. “It was part of Sunday, the experience of the hats. We looked forward to seeing what hat Sister So-and-So was going to wear. My friends, we all grew up in the same church with mothers who wore hats, but we don’t. And so, yes, it seems it’s fading out.”
Elaine Saunders, a twice-retired Howard University graduate who worked in the federal government and nonprofit sector for more than 50 years, is part of that generation of black women who launched hat-wearing into the stratosphere. They walked tall in hats that seemed to scream “SEE ME” in a world and in religious institutions that often tried to relegate them to the sidelines. Their style was dignified, elegant, sometimes irreverent and even humorous, but it was always eye-catching.
“You have a certain air when you put on a hat. If you put on the whole shebang and you’re satisfied, you walk different. You act different. And people treat you different,” says Saunders, who works as a secretary at the University of the District of Columbia.
The whole shebang would be a hat that matches the suit that matches the shoes that match the bag. “I’m also a matcher,” Saunders says proudly. “I know that’s not the thing anymore. But I couldn’t care less.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, under construction on the Mall, will immortalize one source of this tradition when it re-creates the hat shop of Mae Reeves, a 99-year-old milliner who was one of the first black female business owners in downtown Philadelphia.