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Crowning Glory

For black women, headpieces are more than just fashion statements. They're about heritage and tradition--and the more elaborate they are, the better.


Even in the wilting days of the old Macy's at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza, one department always seemed to be in full bloom.

The business-suit selection may have been slim; the shoe offerings limited and the makeup selection narrow. But there was always much attention paid to the Millinery Department.

If there was one thing that the black women who still shopped this neighborhood and worshiped in churches nearby needed was not just a hat, but the hat.

We're not talking acrylic berets or wool tams, but grand Sunday hats: Works of art festooned with feathers, rhinestones, opalescent ribbons. Hats that sang when you walked; winked when you turned your head. There were sophisticated basics--blacks and navys--with sleek, weeping brims and just a touch of veil. As well, there were spectacular centerpieces--in fuchsia, chartreuse, even silver Mylar--calling cards in and of themselves.

I knew the power of these hats. When she didn't make her own, my grandmother, Hazel, would tour the department stores and boutiques along the Crenshaw strip, the Miracle Mile, sometimes Beverly Hills, on grand hat expeditions--her studious face framed by the gilt portrait mirror--the hand mirror situated just so, to allow for the clearest view of the back of her head. Inclined to freckle, my grandmother, originally from New Orleans, had collected scores of hats to block or at the very least filter the Southern summer sun. That, of course, was the ruse--the way to augment her collection from fall to spring; formal to casual. And between seasons as well. So why should it change in season-less L.A.? Tradition is tradition.

For anyone who has grown up around the Sunday hat ritual, photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry's new book, "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats" (Doubleday), is a lot like sitting on your mother's bed as she gets dressed. That's where the secrets are shared, stories fly and rituals passed down.

Cunningham, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., dreamed up the idea for the book after a friend who had just returned from a family reunion

raved about the "big, fancy" hats her relatives wore to Sunday services. Coordinating with friends who put the word out, Cunningham, before long, was photographing dozens of women of various religious denominations, backgrounds and generations garbed in their Sunday best and crowned by the hat.

Months later, he enlisted Marberry, who decided that instead of poems or essays to accompany the black-and-white portraits, each woman's personal story would best chronicle not only the story of the hat, but also the story of a tradition and its attending ritual.

And thus: Peggy Knox, a child-care provider, schools us on "the hat queen's rules": "Don't let people touch the hat. Don't let people knock the hat. Don't let people hug too close." And evangelist Addie Webster explains why it's best to splurge: "There's nothing worse than going to church and seeing [someone wearing the same hat]. . . . If you buy a cheap hat, you might see yourself one day."

Perhaps it is boutique owner Audrey Easter who expresses the truth most resonantly: "If it weren't for black women, the hat industry would be out of business."


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