Church ladies and their big, bold hats: A fading tradition

Elaine Saunders stepped into Bachrach’s Millinery in Northwest Washington one late winter day in 1953, and there it was, calling her name: a pale fuchsia straw hat with an upturned brim and matching rosebuds circling the crown.

“It’s a Mr. John,” Saunders, now 77, recalls without explanation, certain the designer’s name alone says this was no ordinary hat.

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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.”

Changing style

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.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Mae’s Millinery made one-of-a-kind creations for the stars, including Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson, as well as some of the city’s most prominent socialites, who sometimes rolled up in a limousine.

But it was the regular church ladies, black and white, who made up about half of the shop’s business and helped keep the place open for 50 years, buying “showstoppers” for Sunday morning, said Reeves’s daughter, Donna Limerick, a documentary producer for a Bethesda-based company who went to work in her mother’s shop when she was 15.

Like Reeves, who lives in a suburban Philadelphia nursing home, many of the most celebrated African American milliners are well past retirement age. In the District, Vanilla Beane — maker of the famed creations worn by late civil rights and women’s activist Dorothy Height — is 92. Although Beane is still making hats, few younger business owners have taken up the art.

Saunders, who grew up in Southwest Washington, inherited her sense of style from her mother, Estelle Proctor, a hat-loving fashionista who indulged her wardrobe tastes at the likes of Woodies, Garfinckel’s, Haber’s and other H Street stores. But Proctor’s main choice for hats in the early years was Bachrach’s, which — unlike other white retailers — allowed black women to try on hats inside the store long before the civil rights movement pushed others to do so.

Mother and daughter not only wore hats and gloves to church but also donned them for shopping trips downtown. “If you were dressed up, they thought you were somebody important, so you’d get waited on,” Saunders said.

And so, quite naturally, when Saunders married the love of her life, John, and they had six children, she followed her mother’s example. She put a hat on her three daughters’ heads for church and special occasions as long as she was buying their clothes, combing their hair and telling them what to wear. And oh, how she loved the beauty of it: her cocoa-skinned girls in their pigtails, bowed dresses, Mary Janes and matching hats.

But then they got old enough (and bold enough) to say, “Mama, please,” in a commanding, not a begging, sort of way.

“I guess as I got older, around my teens, I started flirting around with different hairstyles,” said Sylvia Magby, 58, Saunders’s oldest daughter, chief of systems and forms at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. “I started cutting my hair, and I just never found a hat that fit my head.”

She is now experimenting with smaller, fedora-style hats.

But her youngest sister, Anita, who has a doctorate and works as a clinical manager for a nonprofit mentoring group in Indianapolis, won’t go near a hat (except the emergency baseball cap for bad hair days). She was much younger when she first rebelled against them. “I was maybe 6, and I was very concerned that the hat would disturb my bangs, and I wanted nothing to do with it,” she recalls.

Like the Saunders sisters, Limerick wore hats designed by her mother throughout her childhood. But in the late 1960s, when bouffant hair and ’fros defined the raging times, she put them away for a while. Her mother’s shop was hit hard by the changes, too.

By 1987, Mae Reeves was 75 years old, and most of her customers were fellow seniors.

“Even though business was declining, Mae kept the shop running by taking orders from her special clients, up until 1997, when she was 85 years old,” Limerick says.

‘Here I am, world’

By then, Limerick had found her way back to hats. Now she wears them all the time. As she crisscrosses the Washington region to speak at luncheons and teas about her mother’s career, she uses volunteer models to show off selections from the vintage Reeves collection. Many women say, “I have hats from my mother and other relatives, but I don’t wear them,” or “Hats don’t look good on me,” Limerick says.

But many of the women get inspired by the show to give hats a try.

“I promptly remind them that Mae always tells women to have at least one special hat that you can put on, strut out the door, and say, ‘Here I am, world. I feel good, and I know I look good.’ ”

As Saunders sees it, “there will be a set of women who will wear hats forever.”

The kind of woman who hears her name when she walks into a hat store, the way Saunders did in January when she headed straight to Beane’s millinery shop after learning that President Obama was visiting Zion Baptist.

“When I got out of the car and walked into the store, it called out my name.” The perfect hat, a pouf of fuchsia and dark iridescent feathers,“shooting out all over the place” from a fitted band.

“A bunch of people at church were looking for me to see what kind of hat I would have on,” Saunders says. “One of the ladies said, ‘They’ll never miss you with that hat.’ Well, that was the whole point.”

Sure enough, a photo in the church bulletin shows the Obamas in one row, and just behind them on the opposite side, only a tip of Saunders’s face is visible, and barely.

But there, in all its splendor, is that poof of fuchsia and iridescent feathers, marking her spot for all the world to see.

 
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