This is going to date me, but it's true: When I was young, most black ladies wore hats to church. Easter was the true beginning of spring, the day when hats in spring colors blossomed throughout the congregation: yellow, peach, mint, lilac, pink. Even if the weather wasn't cooperating, the hats came out. At my home church, Dixwell Avenue Congregational in frosty New Haven, Conn., it wasn't unusual to see a lady wearing her spring finery beneath her mink coat. It might have been barely 50 degrees, but it was Easter, and the hats were coming out.
Although the world has gotten much more casual in the intervening decades, and sadly, hats are far less ubiquitous, hat culture remains alive and well in many of the nation's black churches. On Palm Sunday in South L.A., the pews of West Angeles Church of God in Christ were splashed with plenty of color: broad brims in coral, pink and cream trimmed in ribbons and flowers; lampshade profiles in aqua and pistachio; and high-hat toppers in dusty rose, trimmed in lace and festooned with silk flowers. The black hats were anything but basic: The equestrienne top hat sparkled with tiny crystals on its crown and net veil, and the brim of one magnificent upturned glazed straw had a sunburst pattern of gold threading and crystal baguettes that perfectly echoed the gold and silver threading on the cuffs of the wearer's St. John knit suit.
It was a rich sample of the fashionable display in many of the city's black churches, though perhaps on a slightly larger scale -- West Angeles is one of the biggest Protestant churches in the region. Its 24,000 members attend one of three services each Sunday, and its bishop, Charles Blake, is about to be installed as the presiding bishop for the Church of God in Christ, the fourth-largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. The bishop says, "all are welcome. We don't care how you dress, we just care that you come." But most people come dressed up because they want to. And many of the women -- old, young and in between -- wear hats. Serious hats.
The first lady of West Angeles, Mae Blake, understands their passion: She started wearing hats when she was in elementary school.
"I think I was about 7 when this was taken," she says with a smile, showing a black-and-white photo of a little girl in a dark suit with white collar and cuffs, a small hat perched on her head. That was the first hat she can remember, and it started a tradition that's lasted for decades. "I don't wear hats just on Sunday," she emphasizes. "For me, hats are a way of life. I grew up seeing them worn every day as a part of a polished, well-coordinated look."
But Sunday hats, she admits, have always been important. Growing up, "I was taught that Sundays were special days where I honored God by presenting my best, as just one reflection of a larger style of worship." She understands that times have changed, and, echoing her husband, she's careful to note that "I don't at all feel that Sunday dress -- extravagant or very casual -- is an indication of your level of devotion to God." For her, though, there's delight as well as devotion in selecting her Sunday best.
The hat she wears on this day is an oversized beret of silk flowers in spring colors, perched saucily to the side. The one she'll wear when her husband is installed in his new position later this month is top secret. But she takes me to a table in the bishop's inner office where a large hat box has a Polaroid carefully affixed to its front: It shows a cotton candy-pink confection with a broad, downturned brim that is covered with loopy silk bows. I ask her about a rumor I've heard -- that she never wears the same hat twice. She rolls her eyes.
"Of course I wear them again! Sometimes, I might add something or take something off, to make it feel a little different, but my mother taught me the value of choosing classic things that weren't trendy, could not be dated." So, she has no problem recycling hats. Over the years, she's received them as gifts, collected them on her travels and found them on sale tables. And all are carefully cataloged and stored in one room, so she can keep track of what she wears when.
The hat makers
Many of the hats at West Angeles come from two of its parishioners, Sonja Robinson and her daughter Meeka Robinson-Davis. Sonja is the founder of One-of-a-Kind Hats on Crenshaw Boulevard, and Meeka has become a second-generation hat maker, running a branch store on Slauson Avenue.
On a recent Saturday, Meeka is helping Elena Tucker coordinate her Palm Sunday outfit. The deep turquoise sheath is covered by a walking coat -- a seven-eighths length jacket -- embellished with silver and gold lamé patchwork.
"I come all the way from the East Side to Meeka because I trust her," Tucker says. "I always get compliments." Reaching carefully into her hat box, she pulls out the outfit's finishing touch: a lampshade shape in the same hue as the dress, covered in Belgian lace with jeweled edging. Tucker is still wearing her Saturday errand-running clothes, but as she places the hat at her preferred angle, she morphs into a grande dame: In less than 30 seconds, her hat has made her stately. That might explain why she, like so many other hat lovers, has a dedicated room for her chapeaus.
Such devotion to the art of the hat has made One-of-a-Kind recession-proof -- so far. "People will buy for church, but they're buying things that will last them several seasons," Meeka explains. "An accessory will update their look without having to buy a whole new wardrobe."
But the economy is being felt across town. Leola Speed owns Leola's Fashion Hats and Accessories, on Florence Avenue near Crenshaw. Her customers, she says, are "church ladies, mostly. And I know almost every one by her first name."
Speed has been in business since 1985, and in the last several months, she's found that hat buyers have been more cautious. "I have reduced some of my prices to help my customers out," Speed admits, pointing to several casual hats that are on sale. But her collection has high-end models too, with sparkly numbers from New York label Mr. John and coveted classics by now-retired designer Jack McConnell. And despite the moribund economy, she says some of her ladies are loath to settle for what they consider second best.
"I have some customers come in, and they ask if they can pay a little every week," says Speed. "They know what they want, and they are not interested in substitutes." And they will be wearing fabulous hats for Easter.
Back at West Angeles, a group of hat wearers is assembling in the sun-filled foyer for a photograph. Colorful and ever so exotic, they look like gorgeous tropical birds, alighting gracefully for a brief moment before scattering in different directions.
A sure sign of spring.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News. She's trying to work up the nerve to wear a really splendid hat.