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Robin Givhan: Easter fashion has a rich history, but its glory is eroding

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; E01

Almost every holiday has its fashion component, but few have as rich a legacy for finery as Easter. The day remains one of the last gasps of old-school style. It gives milliners a reason to stock up on horsehair and ostrich feathers. It has hairstylists recalling the best method for setting Shirley Temple curls. And it makes parents who normally are gender-neutral on matters of child-rearing suddenly revert to stereotypes -- putting daughters in frilly dresses and boys in pint-size navy blazers and clip-on ties.

The history of the Easter ensemble derives from the philosophy of wearing one's Sunday best to the glory of God. On Easter, style expectations are ratcheted up several degrees in recognition of the day's outsize religious significance. There's an element of spring fever, too, in the way that the Easter wardrobe serves as a harbinger of daffodils and tulips -- no matter if there is often a bone-piercing chill in the air and, occasionally, snow on the ground.

Easter Sunday tends to bring prodigal congregants back into the fold, their spiritual devotion no less admirable than their desire to be part of the fashion fellowship. For regular churchgoers, there's a temptation to chortle at the scene of wayward parents with their dolled-up girls and duded-up boys walking into service after having been absent the rest of the year. But fine Christian folks, even if they can't resist at least one sidelong glance, eventually come around and give their long-lost brothers and sisters a welcoming hug along with an invitation to come back the following Sunday. Fancy hat not required.

There was no mandate that people had to wear new clothes on Easter Sunday, but that was certainly part of the tradition. The custom dovetailed nicely with the idea of Easter as a symbol of rebirth. And once upon a time, even if a woman couldn't afford an entire new ensemble, she would at least get herself a new hat or even just a bit of grosgrain ribbon to put a fresh fillip on an old favorite.

Easter Sunday still reflects an old-fashioned approach to clothes -- one defined by civility, formality and propriety. But only barely. One wonders just how much longer it will survive. Many a milliner is kept afloat by the loyalty of church ladies -- those women who believe that a head covering on Sunday morning, and particularly on Easter, is a sign of respect and reverence. And, of course, it doesn't hurt if that hat also happens to be just a wee bit fabulous. (See: Aretha Franklin on Inauguration Day.)

But church ladies, the kind who can carry off a hat with aplomb, are a dying breed. Most women have never worn anything more formal on their head than ski caps and baseball caps. Even first ladies have given up on millinery for Inauguration Day, realizing that it's virtually impossible to look both dignified and comfortable in pillboxes or picture hats when one's head is accustomed to being naked.

Churches themselves have also become more informal places in an effort to knock down barriers and exude a more welcoming atmosphere to those who might be intimidated by row upon row of folks in expensive frippery. Predominately black churches were once a treasure trove of hat-wearing ladies and men in suits and spit-shined shoes. And while there remain die-hards who believe they are not fully dressed for worship service until they have adjusted the hatpin in their cloche, younger women are not stepping up to carry on the long tradition of wearing a hat as though it is their crown. Today, women come up with gimmicky occasions -- elaborate teas, for instance -- to which they self-consciously wear a hat. Why bother? And young men are more inclined to take better care of their sneakers than polish a pair of dress oxfords.

Today's mega-churches are filled with members dressed in jeans and flip-flops. The idea of glorifying one's maker through bows and lace has given way to casual Sunday. Indeed, some churches even advertise the fact that Easter service is an informal one. And the days when New York's famous Easter parade down Fifth Avenue was a massive procession of serious ensembles are long gone, having given way to a modest carnival of botanical hats, rabbit ears and other outrageous folly.

That's all in good fun. But it's also too bad. Easter Sunday is the last tenuous link to the days when a wide swath of the culture believed fashion could be used -- without a hint of sarcasm or irony -- as a marker of moral rectitude, a symbol of earnest faith, a show of respect. On Easter Sunday, folks got dressed up because they wanted to celebrate life and generosity of spirit. When is the last time anyone ever equated those characteristics with the fashion industry? It's almost impossible to conceive that fashion once played an integral part in helping people express the joy and redemption that they felt deep within their souls.

Retailers didn't turn Easter Sunday into a rapacious consumer frenzy. Stores don't advocate Easter wardrobe makeovers or top 10 lists of must-have Easter trends. Instead, over the years, the focus remained on the singular ensemble. The new dress, the glorious hat, a first big-boy suit. For all the commercialism that surrounds everything from Presidents' Day to Christmas, Easter remained, by comparison, relatively low-key.

So it's not with any great debt-riddled relief or sense of righteous greed-is-bad justice that one watches the Easter ensemble, and all the sweet glee it evoked, slowly fade away. It's with a touch of sadness. Because on at least that one day out of 365, fashion symbolized something good, mighty and redemptive.

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