Hey Creative Friend,
I want to share my newest piece in the Black Crowns Series with you and tell you the story behind the art piece. This piece is entitled “Catching God’s Eye”. It depicts an African American woman in an elegant church hat.
Women in generations past, all wore hats or scarves or some type of head covering to church. For African American women of a certain age, church hats are still an integral part of their church clothes. (Here’s a video about that)
Many women of this age group will usually have hats to match their clothes, shoes, and handbags. Some have tons of hats that they have accumulated over the years. The Harrison Museum of African American Culture held an exhibition in 2017, which showcased the hats of just one woman – Irma Jean Young Smith. Ms. Smith accumulated more than 150 hats over her life time. The exhibit – Extraordinary Crowns – showcased 30 of those hats and traced the history of the church hat in the Black Community.
Catching God’s Eye
Wearing your “Sunday best” to church is a tradition that dates back many years. It has both cultural and spiritual significance. Growing up, I was raised to wear my best clothes to church. I remember my mom dressing me up for church, sometimes doing my hair the night before, so that I’ll look pretty on Sunday morning.
As an adult, I’ve also continued the tradition of dressing myself and my children for church on Sundays. I can easily say that Sundays are my best-dressed days of the week. They’re the days on which I take the most care in dressing up.
When my children were little, Sunday mornings were always hectic. Since I don’t like being late to church, I usually get our clothes out the night before; so that I don’t have to make those decisions in the morning.
However, I’ve wondered about the tradition of the elaborate church hat (also called crowns). There’s a milliner on Instagram who creates the most fanciful hats I’ve ever seen. This milliner’s biggest fan is their grandmother who wears their hats to church every Sunday. In my opinion, grandma does a far better job of showcasing their hats than the company itself does. Check out grandma’s Instagram page.
I didn’t grow up with the tradition of wearing church hats: but many African Americans here in the United States did. The author Michael Cunningham, wrote a book – “Crowns” on this topic (affiliate link). In the book, he photographed women in their elegant church hats while sharing their stories. I was fascinated by this tradition so I created this piece of artwork as a way of celebrating and learning more about it.
What I’ve gathered from the many stories I’ve read, is this.
3. Wearing a Head Covering Has a Spiritual Significance
Many Christians cover their heads to church in obedience to a command in the Bible by the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:5
“But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.”Apostle Paul
Some people believe this command has to do with the culture of the people at the time. Other people think it’s a command that transcends culture and time. Personally, I can’t speak to it. All I know is that some generations past, this was the tradition. A woman was not “decently” dressed if she went to church without a hat.
2. Wearing a Head Covering is a Creative Expression
The second thing I learned is that wearing a hat is a form of creative expression. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to dress the way they wanted. The only times they got to express themselves in clothes was when they got the rare occasion to congregate at church. Church was just as much a form of social gathering as it was a place of worship. To these women, making and wearing elegant hats was a fusion of fashion and faith. Their tall hats have a striking resemblance to African headdresses.
3. Wearing a Head Covering is a Form of Worship
African American church ladies were and are still very prayerful women. During slavery they believed that through prayer, God will hear their cries and deliver them from their misery just like the Bible story about Moses and the Israelites.
They also believed that the head is the part of your body which is in the nearest proximity to God, who lives above your head. So, in order to reach God with your prayers, the taller your hat and the wider its brim, the more easily you’ll be noticed by God.
This is where the phrase, “Catching God’s eye?”, comes from. When women wore wide-brimmed hats to church, their friends would say, Catching God’s Eye?” In other words, are you trying to get God’s attention so He’ll hear your prayers?
I found the story behind that phrase fascinating. That’s why I named this piece that way.
4. Dressing Up for Church is an Expression of Gratitude
Finally, when I became an adult, I started to question why I needed to dress up for church. I concluded that I keep dressing up to show gratitude to God. During my research, I learned that just like in my own life, for many people who dress up to church or as they say it, wear their Sunday best, it’s simply a way of being grateful.
Catching God’s Eye
It’s a way to be grateful for what we have. For one day in the week, maybe not even that. For a couple of hours on one particular day in the week, people choose to dress up and celebrate all the good things they have – life, shelter, food, friends, family, and a community. Oh, and in hopes of catching God’s eye so He can take care of the other things which are not going so well in our lives.
PS: Want more? Read other Stories Behind The Art.
Get behind the scenes and learn more about my art practice, events, exhibitions and release of new artworks
Also published on Medium.
I love art that showcases a slice of cultural or history that may be unknown or taken for granted. Catching God’s Eye is a fantastic piece capturing a beautiful piece that masterfully embodies the African American woman celebrating God and the gift of her own existence.
Clara Nartey says
I really enjoyed making this piece and learning the cultural and spiritual significance of the church hats. 😄
Vicky Gailey says
Vicky Gailey says
Clara, thanks so much for pointing out some aspects of hats and church going that I had not previously considered. It gave me something to think about. Besides the info you shared, which seems logical to me, here is my take on this for what it is worth, Clara:
There were, and still are, both similarities and differences in the approach to hats and other dress among varying economic and social classes. I was born in 1946 to an upper lower class white family. Since then there has been a cultural change for sure. When I grew up I was taught you tried to look your best, whatever that may be, at church; at interviews; when entertaining as a professional entertainer or when entertaining company at home or for business; at funerals; etc., as a sign of respect for the other person/people. Looking your best meant doing the best with what you had and could afford. This was not mere vanity but quite the opposite.
Regarding dressing up for church, it did not matter that God could see your regardless of what you had on. It was not about Him being impressed with your physical appearance. God was looking at your soul, not your clothes. It was about your trying to show respect to him and other members of the congregation. And how wonderful it was to see our friends and neighbors looking their best. But when dressing up for church became a competition to outdress others, it was simply vanity. And this often happened and it was actually disrespectful and a turn off to those who saw it as such, or to those who were made to feel inferior or lacking because they did not have the fancy clothes needed to compete successfully. Sometimes this resulted in people not bothering to clean up for church or not bothering to go to church at all. I would guess this was common to most groups.
In the African American communities, as well as in some other minority communities, dressing for church was also important as a point of pride and worthiness that was not quite the same as among groups that were more affluent and who were not treated as inferior by a larger culture. I would guess it helped instill a sense of worth and pride that was needed due to the discrimination they faced by the dominant society. And this in turn, helped them feel the respect they paid to God and others in the congregation would be accepted. I could be totally off with this, but to me it seems logical. It would be difficult to show respect to God or any person if you did not feel worthy enough to do so.
Self worth is vital to all of us. And we can feel worthy or unworthy regardless of our economic and social status. But for sure if we are repeatedly told we are worthless or treated as such, we may need ways, not matter how small, to help us feel our worth. Hats helped fill this need and besides, they were just plain fun to wear and beautiful to look at. I notice the British royalty are still into glamourous hats. I loved wearing big brimmed hats with flowers when I was much younger. And I still enjoy seeing women dressed up for church and wearing hats of all sorts, although my personal favorites are still the big broad brimmed hats with flowers, netting, fruits and feathers.
Having the privilege via the internet, of watching you develop as an artist has been delightful. I have the attention span of a dried out slug and so really appreciate the time and patience, as well as talent, it must take to create one of your wonderful works. And, Clara, I love your “Catching God’s Eye”. You surely must have gotten his attention because it is a wonderful work of art.
Clara Nartey says
I do enjoy a lively discussion and I appreciate that you took time to discuss this into detail. I do agree with you on many of the points you made.
It sure is a cultural thing, a way of dressing in a certain period, and a way of asserting one’s self worth. All of those apply.
Also, in order not to make those who aren’t able to dress in their “Sunday Best” feel self-conscious or left out, I know many churches do Casual Sundays where you wear the most casual clothes possible
Thanks for an engaging discussion, Vicky.