Gerzina: Easter bonnets and Aretha’s hat

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(HOST) As many of us prepare to celebrate Passover and Easter this week, commentator Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is thinking about – the wearing of hats.

(GERZINA) This time of year always makes me think of another kind of new beginning.  When I was a girl, this was when, freed from winter’s sacrifices, we got new clothes.  They were in light fabrics and lovely colors, even in those years when Easter came early.  After searching for our Easter baskets we put on our pretty dresses and headed to church.  There the women were like flowers:  a garden of blues and yellows and pinks and pale greens.  And on top of every head, male and female, was a new hat.  The men in felt with a snappy band, the women and girls in discreet feathers and ribbons.  Think Judy Garland in the film "Easter Parade."

We don’t much go in for hats these days, especially not in Vermont.  Here the hats are of the woolly variety in winter, and in other months-especially on bad hair days-they draw our eyes to the teams they worship.  Maybe it’s a rural thing; after all, nothing seems to call for the more formal dress that was normal until the sixties in all sorts of situations.  Before then, girls wore skirts and dresses to school, even in the snowiest weather.  People dressed for all sorts of occasions:  to go to school.  To go to work.  To get on a plane or a train or a bus.  And they always wore hats to complete the ensembles.
But is this really a dress code of the dim past?  On any Sunday morning in an African American church, or on the street near one, what do you see?  Women in hats.  And not just little hats, but magnificent hats.  From Harlem to Milwaukee, from Oakland to Atlanta, Sunday morning is when black women from teens to octogenarians carefully place wonderful hats on their heads.  The book Crowns:  Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats is full of photographs of women like 61-year-old Juanita Miller in her tall beaded hat; 22-year-old Tamara Hill, a college student, with her jauntily-angled brim; and 52-year-old Lucille Monroe, a lab technician, in a hat that rivals those worn at Ascot.  As Maya Angelou writes in the foreword, "they stroll up and down the aisles of the church, stars of splendor, beauty beyond measurement.  Black ladies in hats."

After January’s inauguration of the new president, the comment lines were ablaze, not with remarks about the speech, but with disparagement of Aretha Franklin’s hat.  Even though Franklin’s milliner can’t keep up with the orders for replicas; white America, used to a casualness that allowed college girls to go last year to the White House wearing flip flops, labeled as an atrocity a hat that was admired by so many communities.

This weekend, while the earth works so hard to put forward its shoots and fragile blooms, think about the joy a little finery brings.  For Aretha, it wasn’t just a hat.  It was a thing of beauty.  It was a celebration.  It was a symbol of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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