Royal Splendor

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“I don’t wear hats so big no one can see around them in church,” Ethel Bradley says. That would be one of her few constraints on headwear. On Sundays in churches from the humblest Compton chapel to the most grandiose midtown cathedral, African American women are wearing hats so beribboned, be-feathered and otherwise decorated that they are known in the community as “crowns,” and the former first lady of Los Angeles is no exception.

Bradley, 85, greets a visitor in her View Park home coiffed in one of 200-plus crowns that includes classic examples of the “cartwheel” (a broad-brimmed hat with a low, round crown), the “Juliet” (a skullcap made of expensive fabrics, encrusted with jewels), the pillbox (the small brimless hat made fashionable by Jackie Kennedy in the ‘60s), and assorted straws (summer hats and Panamas, one constructed with pure gold braid). An assortment of elegant feathered pieces, out of storage for the afternoon, nestles beneath a bust of her late husband, Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles from 1973 to 1993. Each hat is a delicate work of art by fabled milliners such as Jack McConnell, Mr. John and Caspar Davis. Another standout is composed of long, shimmering palm-leaf strips dotted with silk rose petals and clusters of green satin leaves.

As to the occasions for which the hats were purchased, Bradley says simply, “There was always church.” She is referring to New Hope Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, where her father was superintendent and where, as a 12-year-old, she met 13-year-old Tom Bradley, who became her husband 10 years later. Bradley still has the hat she wore to celebrate the birth of their daughter Lorraine. Lorraine Bradley, now 60, observes, “When mother walks out, everyone expects, number one, that she’s going to have a knockout outfit on, and she’s going to have on a kickin’ hat.”


Retired hat maker Gertrude Parks, 83, mother of City Councilman Bernard Parks, shares her friend Ethel’s enthusiasm for head-turning chapeaus. “All the hats I bought for myself I didn’t like,” says Parks, who still creates hats on occasion for family and friends, most notably her mother, who will be 101 this year. “Believe it or not, I would wear them backward to make them look right. After I started making them, I got noticed by the famous L.A. designer Mrs. Jesse, and I began designing hats for her at Robinsons in Beverly Hills in the ‘60s. When we went to church, we would not think of going casual, like they do now. We had our gloves, our matching bags and, of course, our hats.”

“Crowns,” a 2000 coffee table book by Craig Marberry and photographer Michael Cunningham saluting African American women and their hats, notes that the Apostle Paul advised women to don head coverings when entering places of worship. But, Marberry writes, “[Paul] could not have imagined the flamboyance with which African American women would comply.” One woman quoted in the book, which has been adapted into a musical play, speculates that in slavery black women decorated their field rags and bandannas to gain a measure of dignity and style denied in every other aspect of their lives. Marberry observes: “These captivating hats are not mere fashion accessories. Church hats are a peculiar convergence of faith and fashion that keeps the Sabbath holy and glamorous.”

Bradley--along with daughter Lorraine, millinery historian and hat maker Beverly Etheredge and close friend Ernestine Nettles, curator of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation family collections--is documenting her family archives for a possible exhibition of papers, memorabilia, photographs and objets d’ art, including, of course, her collection of hats. A tip for the warm season: “I won’t wear a felt hat after Easter,” Bradley says. “It’s just not done. Easter is when you bring out the flowers and straws. Of course, feathered hats can be worn year-round.”