The notion of “Sunday best” was one of my earliest introductions to style. As a kid, I spent hours in my mother’s closet on Saturdays, carefully taking the boxes down from the top self, helping her choose which elaborate headdress she would wear the following morning. The one I remember most was a white straw hat with giant black polka dots all over; it was anything but subtle, and my mom said I used to pull it off of her head and try to wear it when I was a baby. When she wore it, I imagined my mother as something more than regal — she was angelic.
The centuries-old custom of elaborate church outfits derives from a Biblical decree (1 Corinthians 11:15) to cover your head during worship, and black women, even in times of slavery, took that opportunity to be creative and resourceful, adding any scraps of flowers, bows, or ribbons to straw hats to make them look more festive and formal.
During the civil-rights movement, church was not only a place of worship but a place that provided leadership roles and status for black women. Pioneering milliner Mae Reeves’s exhibition at the Smithsonian proved its significance in culture, starting her business of making church hats with only $500, and ended up with clients Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. My own grandmother worked at a steel and boiler factory through the week, but come Sunday, she was the best-dressed woman in the congregation — every accessory immaculately coordinated, from her wide-brimmed hat to her wrist-length lace gloves and perfectly shined kitten heels. And since she always sat in the front row with other church mothers, the “hattitude” was very real.
It’s a tradition that’s alive and well and beloved in black culture, so when I got the chance to spend time with the women of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, we immediately bonded over the nostalgic love of church mothers in hats. More than aesthetics, these crowns are symbols of honor and holding your head high. Nestled in a pew dedicated to André Leon Talley, former Vogue magazine editor-at-large, the Cut sat down with a few longtime congregants to get a little of their impeccable style and wisdom.
“As a child, we went to a small storefront church in the Bronx, and there was an older woman named Miss Belle who always wore hats and these beautiful lace handkerchiefs, and that’s stayed with me to this day. This is my tenth year at Abyssinian, and I love the tradition of getting dressed so much that I wish we had the opportunity to wear hats more. I bought this hat in London, after I found out the designer used to make hats for Princess Diana, and had this shipped back home.” —Debora Jones
“I like to wear a hat that’s sassy. I’ve been going to this church for 80 years — I used to be an usher, I’ve been a missionary, and I get emotional when I think about all the women, including my mother, Grace E. Jones, that have made me what I am. It means a great deal to me to be a church mother.” —Grace Jones
“I grew up on patent-leather shoes and dressing up for church; back then, all we had was school clothes, play clothes, and church clothes. Even now, when I come to church, I always wear a hat and a dress. I enjoy it! Anybody who asks you about June, they’ll tell you June dresses her butt off on Sunday because it’s for God.” —June Broxton
Photos by Andre D. Wagner
Styled and written by Lindsay Peoples Wagner
Special thanks to Abyssinian Baptist Church