There was a time in history when African-American women working in domestic jobs wore the same uniform, stockings and shoes six days a week.
But on the seventh day, for church, they dressed in their Sunday best.
Churches became not only the cornerstone of the African-American community, but also a venue for African-American women to break free from the weekday fashion monotony and show their fashion individuality. On Sundays, women wore bold, vibrant colors and smart skirts or dress suits topped off with beautiful, intricate church hats.
Exploring and documenting this tradition of style is the “Sunday Go To Meeting: African-American Women and Church Hats in Houston,” exhibit at The African American Library at the Gregory School, 1300 Victor St.
“This exhibit is a celebration of the domestic engineers that have come before us, and the history of why African-American women wear hats to church,” said Danielle Wilson, curator of the exhibit.
The exhibit also features photos of African-American women in church hats as well as authentic church hats donated from the private collections of African-American women in Houston, including Janet Winkley, first lady of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church; Sheretta West of the Church Without Walls; the late Audrey Lawson, first lady emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and her daughter, Melanie Lawson, news anchor at KTRK-TV channel 13.
Alicia Collins, a student at Houston’s College of Biblical Studies, attended the exhibit’s soft opening May 28.
“What attracted me to this exhibit is an assignment I am working on at school for a class called African-American Christianity,” Collins said. “We have to write about something related to African-American Christianity and learning how the black churches began.
“When I saw the announcement of the exhibit, I knew I had to come here and experience it, learn new information and hope to find out how [hats] originated in the black church. The hats themselves are beautiful; I’ve enjoyed the pictures and envisioning the hats on display being worn in church and the entire outfits of the women,” Collins said.
While browsing the hats and photos, many of the visitors were overheard discussing their personal connections to church hats, recalling family photos and events and sharing hat designs they’ve seen or worn before.
“I’ve had a great interest in genealogy and in researching my family history,” said Florence K. Carter. “I found out that my grandmother was a seamstress, and I know that my mother made her own hats.
“This exhibit is wonderful; the hats were in pristine condition. I could see examples of kinds of hats my mother made, especially the pill top. She made her own pill top hats, the kind that Jackie Kennedy popularized. I am building my own collection of my mother’s hats, but I don’t wear hats. You have to have that attitude, I believe, when you wear a church hat.”
The exhibit is open until Saturday, Oct. 29, and the final day will also include a fashion show and reception.
HPL will also host a related series of programs and panel discussions headed by artists who have chronicled African-American women in church hats and by women who collect hats. More details on exhibit events are on the Houston Public Library website, www.houstonlibrary.net.
“We want to encourage women to come visit our Sunday Go To Meeting exhibit, wear their hats and join the discussion,” Wilson said.
The African-American Library at the Gregory School is open Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. – 6p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Call 832-393-1440 for more information.