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Michael Cunningham

There are at least three things that are nearly extinct from modern life: china, hostess skirts and hats. When I was a kid, any dinner guest was cause for bringing out the good china and silver. And no self-respecting bride would organize a gift registry that did not include china. Not so anymore.

People dine out rather than entertaining at home—which also explains the disappearance of the hostess skirt. If you hosted or attended a casual weekend party during the 70s, a long hostess skirt was your go-to wardrobe staple, worn with a turtleneck or blouse.

And on any Sunday morning in the 1960s, women and girls donned hats and gloves for church and possibly for other things. (I can’t say because my social agenda was limited to occasions that allowed 5- to 10-year-old kids. Back in the Children-Should-Be-Seen-And-Not-Heard Era, that was a much smaller list of possibilities than it is today.)

Unfortunately, hats became a casualty of a less formal approach to worship—with one notable exception. Black women still turn out for worship in magnificent hats, upholding a tradition that shows how integral their headwear has always been to their faith.

A book for hat lovers

That’s the subject of a stunning book by Michael Cunningham, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Cunningham was guest lecturer at yesterday’s Hats Off event at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He first conceived of  Crowns after attending a conference in New York, where he heard a captivating message. “As artists, we were encouraged to always have a personal project,” he says.

As a successful commercial photographer who makes his living doing corporate work, Cunningham was stymied by the lack of creative freedom allowed by his paying work. In Crowns, it is on full display in gorgeous black and white photography, accompanied by personal profiles of the women who wear them. First published by Doubleday 13 years ago, the book’s sales were originally projected at 15,000 copies. A month after hitting the market, Cunningham’s book doubled that forecast. Today, 150,000 copies have been sold.

Crowns is a book of elegance and wisdom, loaded with hat lore and anecdotes from Cunningham’s regal-looking subjects. Not to diminish these women, but have you ever noticed that almost everyone is more interesting in a hat?

Gems from the book

• “Don’t let people knock the hat. Don’t let people touch the hat. Don’t let people hug too close.”––Peggy Knox
• “I’m 47, a wife, mother, law school teacher and a former assistant attorney general, but my mother still dresses me.” ––Beth Hopkins
• In the 1950s, hats were a sign of status among working women. When you got your first job, you bought a hat. This was particularly important when cultural bigotry and discrimination relegated many (if not most) black women to the lowliest positions. No matter what they did during the week, dressing up on Sundays was a source of dignity and strength.
• Black women developed their own community of milliners because segregation prevented them from entering department stores where hats were sold.
• The faith connection is from I Corinthians 11:5, where the apostle Paul encourages women to cover their heads during worship. Symbolically, it caps off a person’s presence and allows God’s presence everywhere else. In black churches, this tradition predates the Civil War. Even slave women found ways to cover and decorate their heads.

Book inscription of Hats

Cunningham is the author of two other books: Queens: Portraits of Black Women and their Fabulous Hair and Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50. He’s also a devilishly handsome dude who inscribed my book, “Congratulations, Hat Queen.” I’ll explain that in my next post, where I’ll share photos from Hats Off—and my personal agony for my little 15 minutes of fame. I guess a person who finds even a small amount of notoriety excruciating is bound to be only so successful in life!

If you like the drama of a hat, stay tuned! How often do you wear hats and where did you find your favorite?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.