Hats, once a necessity for all women, may be returning to the list of must-have accessories. More than 1 billion were sold in the United States in 2004, up 15% from the preceding year and well over a threefold increase since 1986, when the New York-based Headwear Information Bureau began keeping records.
"Black church women represent a large quantity of hat sales," says bureau spokesperson Vicky Gamez.
She also credits the increase in sales to the Red Hat Society, a million-member social organization for women older than 50; the popularity of designer hats by the likes of Marc Jacobs, Prada and Chanel; the growing number of celebrities, such as Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Alicia Keys, Jessica Simpson and Missy Elliott, who have been seen in hats; and a trend among young people at large, who use head coverings as fashion accessories (and for bad hair days).
Women looking for church- worthy hats can look to a variety of sources. One member of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ recently bought a red hat for $7.95 at Wal-Mart; another spent $600 for a black bonnet at One-of-a- Kind Hats on Crenshaw Boulevard. Other sources for hats, culled from interviews with a dozen churchwomen, include Classique Boutique, Leola's Hats and Accessories, Louise Green, Marbro's, Neiman Marcus, Ozzie Dots, Tiffany Collections, World Hats Mart and multiple locations of Goodwill, Macy's, Nordstrom, Robinsons-May and T.J. Maxx.
One of the names mentioned most frequently among devoted shoppers is One-of-a-Kind Hats.
"Our ladies like a lot of rhinestones and crystals," says owner Sonja Robinson, who owns the two One-of-a-Kind Hats shops that specializes in church hats, custom and ready-to-wear. She and her co-designer, daughter Meeka Davis, sell the hats they make under the labels Sonja J of California and Meeka J of California.
Middle-aged and mature black women make up much of their market. Many are first ladies -- the wives of ministers -- and belong to Church of God in Christ, Church of God, Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal congregations. But Davis, who runs the One-of-a-Kind boutique on Slauson Avenue, says she is seeing an increasing number of younger customers who want hats for teas and other occasions.
New York designer Jack McConnell is a perennial favorite among many African American churchwoman. Now semi-retired, he began designing more than 50 years ago, at a time when most women wore hats.
"Being a gent from Tennessee, he had a great knowledge and affection for the hat tradition among Southern women -- white as well as black," says Tom Cumella, a manager of Aldo Hat, which is based in New York and is the largest manufacturer of designer millinery worldwide. In addition to McConnell, Aldo Hat also distributes Mr. John Classic, S'New and Sylvia.
"When the '60s hit," Cumella adds, "most women stopped wearing hats. Except for the African American woman. Mr. McConnell understood that a hat was more than a mere fashion accessory to this woman, that a hat was part of a churchgoing experience, nurtured from mother to daughter."
McConnell hats, which range in price from $120 to $1,200, are sold locally in small hat shops and large department stores such as Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.
Leola's Hats and Accessories in Southwest Los Angeles carries McConnell's designs, but also sells moderate-priced lines and basic, inexpensive hats for as little as $10. "You don't have to pay a lot of money, or sacrifice the money you need for your medicine" to look pretty, says owner Leola Speed, a retired social worker.
Louise Green Millinery Co., a major hat manufacturer in West Los Angeles known for romantic designs inspired by the past, is also capitalizing on the growing demand for head -coverings. "Up until a few years ago our business was strictly wholesale, so we didn't see many of the women who bought the hats. Recently, we opened our studio [custom and ready-to-wear] to the public, and as word of mouth spreads, we are seeing more and more of the black church women here," Chief Executive Lawrence Green says.
Where to find them:
Classique Boutique, 2717 E. Alondra Blvd., Compton, (310) 632-6061. 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
One-of-a-Kind Hats, 3856 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 293-4931. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
And 4442 W. Slauson Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 296-0130. 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Leola's Hats and Accessories, 2813 W. Florence Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 750-8764. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
Louise Green Millinery Co., 1616 Cotner Ave., Los Angeles. (888) 321-HATS. 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Marbro's, 2704 W. Imperial Highway, Inglewood. (323) 754-9040. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 550-5900. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Ozzie Dots Vintage Clothing and Costumes, 4637 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2867. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Tiffany Collections, 6523 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. (562) 493-6122. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
World Hats Mart, 444 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 405-9998. 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
-- Gayle Pollard-Terry