In the pews, a woman’s hat is never just a hat

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Dr. Seuss’ character Bartholomew Cubbins and his 500 hats have nothing on Paula Ellis.

For Ellis, a bishop’s daughter and retired sheriff’s deputy in Kent County, Mich., wearing hats _ or “crowns,” as they’re sometimes called _ to church and other formal events is a sign of respect.

“You could say I’ve traded my browns for crowns,” Ellis joked.

But these aren’t just any hats.

Ellis sells crowns for New York designer and close friend Shellie McDowel, who deals with stars as big as Oprah Winfrey. These one-of-a-kind bejeweled beauties can cost anywhere from $250 to $1,100 _ or more.

As she modeled some of McDowel’s crowns on her mother, Lorraine Abney, Ellis began grabbing more extravagant hats.

“I don’t wear the real bling-bling ones,” Abney said as she adjusted a cream-colored, bell-shaped cloche with a $600 price tag. “Now, you know I don’t wear it like that.”

“Well, how do you want it, precious?” Ellis laughed as she worked the hat on her mother’s head.

The etiquette of hats dates back to biblical times, to I Corinthians where St. Paul calls for women to cover their heads while praying. The tradition is also traced back to slavery as women wore hats to keep the heat of the sun off their heads and shoulders while working in the fields.

Regina Taylor’s musical “Crowns” explores how hats played a significant role in black history. The show tells of a New York girl sent to the South to live with her grandmother, and who winds up learning about life from gospel-singing church ladies.

It’s about more than just wearing a fancy hat to church, but about walking into God’s house feeling your best both inside and out, said Ellis. And though vanity is one of the seven deadly sins, Ellis says there’s a fine line between looking presentable during worship and making a fashion statement.

“I’ve had statements made to me before where people go, `Oh, I can’t get this hat because if I get this hat, God won’t get no glory,”’ Ellis said. “It’s when it becomes an obsession and you’re so consumed in yourself that it’s bad. You’re not so caught up in the fact you have on a nice outfit, it’s about your reasoning, your purpose, your conviction.”

However, the tradition, more popular among the older generations, is starting to slow down a bit as wigs and trendy hairstyles grow in popularity and younger women stray away from wearing hats to church.

“The value and the real true sense of hats has been diminished,” said Veruynca Williams, of Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. “They have no idea as to the origin. It’s become more about trend and fashion. It’s not what you wear, it’s what’s inside. Hats are not a strong component to determining a person’s spirituality.”

Hats can give insightful information about an individual based on height, color, fabric type and quality as well as size, Williams said.

“It tells a story, it’s almost an expression of that person,” she said. “But one cannot depend solely upon that because there are some who do not wear hats.”

Handkerchiefs and lapcloths _ to provide coverage for short skirts _ are an increasing trend to maintain modesty while attending church services. Hat wearing has become more of a seasonal tradition. As temperatures warm up, women are more likely to attend formal events hatless.

Abney has more than 100 hats and said crowns are more prevalent in larger cities.

“Here, people are too conservative; it’s according to the area you’re in,” Abney said. “So they’re not into it as much as you would find in Detroit or Chicago.”

But Williams says some of the styles are too “attention-drawing” for formal wear.

“Some of those hats are absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “But some of those hats remind me of Dr. Seuss.”

(Kristi Jourdan writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)


Photos of Ellis and Abney modeling hats are available via

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