When the Apostle Paul declared that women must cover their heads during worship (1 Corinthians 11:15), African American women took his decree, attached feathers and bows to it, and turned it into something beautiful.
In the early 20th century, Sunday church services provided African American women who worked as domestic servants or in other subservient roles the only real chance to break away from their drab, dreary workday uniforms. They favored bright colors and textured fabric — the bolder the better, really — and topped their outfits off with a flamboyant hat, or “crown.
Elaborate outfits also served as a way to honor God. Women showed respect and reverence by dressing up for church. In earlier times, slaves might wash their one set of clothes; field workers might decorate a straw hat with a ribbon or flower to look more formal. In 1958, the dress code at the predominantly black Bennett College For Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, required all young women to wear hats, gloves and heels to church and whenever they left campus. The college’s president bent the rules only once: when the students protested a Woolworth’s store because their lunch counter wouldn’t serve blacks.
In 2002, Regina Taylor’s off-Broadway production Crowns — based on Cunningham and Marberry’s book by the same name — followed the lives of six Southern African-American women through the hats they wore to church. The play discussed hat etiquette (no hat borrowing), style (you shouldn’t look lost in it), and attitude (you have to have one in order to wear a hat well)