Easter Dresses, Hats, and Special Clothing

Since at least 420 CE, people bought and wore new clothes to celebrate renewal in Spring. In this instance, we are referring to the Northern and Southern Dynasties of China! These new clothes were a symbol of a fresh start as part of the new year.

Both NowRuz and Sham Ennessim include new clothing with their celebration.

In 300 CE, Pope Constantine declared that new clothing must be worn on Easter.

There are a few superstitions around wearing new clothing in the spring including one from Poor Robin’s Almanack in 1899, “At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.”

In many regions that celebrate Easter, a new “Easter dress” and “Easter hat” are very common in clothing ads although now, ads tend to refer to “spring dresses.”

Hats have a different evolution. In the Bible, Corinthians 1: 2-16, dictates that men should not cover their heads during worship, but women should cover their heads and their hair. It also dictates that women should wear their hair long and men should wear their hair short. There is a whole movement in Christianity aiming to revive these practices more broadly.

Head covering is practiced in many segments of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Muslim)

Until 1983, the Catholic Church requested that women cover their heads while in church with a chapel veil. I recall my mother telling stories about girls putting doilies on their heads before entering the church if they had forgotten their own. In other forms of Christianity, such as Amish or Mennonite, women cover their heads almost always.

Orthodox (ultra-conservative) Jewish communities require women to cover all of their hair once they are married. They believe the hair should be covered because it is too sensual for another man to see. This is thought to originate in other Bible passages about a woman being tested after being accused of infidelity.

In recent years, the head coverings of the Muslim religion have made headlines. The word hijab has made headlines but what is it, exactly? Hijab is an Arabic word meaning cover.  The hijab seen most often is a square scarf wrapped to cover the head and neck. However, there are other forms. This piece of clothing came out of the Muslim religious requirements for modesty. While many articles state that hijab is a woman’s choice, there is an underpinning that hijab allows one to succeed in fulfilling the obligation and command of Allah. In some countries, hijab is mandated by law. However, in some of those same countries, women were forced to unveil several decades ago. What is striking to me is that women were not given a voice in the matter. I wonder if this is why there is such a strong feeling of choice over mandate in conversations about hijab?

However, wearing a veil has a much longer history than that. Neolithic cave paintings depict head coverings circa Thousands of years before Jesus was but a sparkle in his father’s eye, veils were worn by women as a status symbol. In polytheistic Assyria, established by around 2500 BCE, women of status wore veils. Lower class women as well as prostitutes, were subject to corporal punishment for wearing a veil. It is interesting to consider a length of fabric as a status symbol.  In ancient Rome, women wore veils as a symbol of their husband’s authority and their own seclusion, among other things. From a practical standpoint, veils and head coverings are also useful in preventing sun, dust and dirt from getting in one’s hair and eyes.

In medieval Europe, women did not leave home without a veil or other head covering. Even medical texts with dissections included a head covering for modesty. This practice flexed and contracted from all outings to only during a religious ceremony, but stayed present in some form, at the very least in some churches, through the 1980s. By the 60’s, hats were no longer a fashion necessity.

Early settlers in North America, like the Ingalls family, got new hats every spring. Some were rougher for everyday wear and some were for Sunday best church attendance.

The religious insistence of head covering became more fashionable and also covered one’s skin from sun exposure. Hats varied in style dramatically over time. Some styles used wire frames woven with ribbons.  One particularly enormous hat, called the Merry Widow, after the play it was designed for, was 3 feet wide and 18 inches tall (almost 1 meter wide and 46 cm tall). Nevertheless, hats were considered proper attire for women and young ladies when out of doors. And, due to the complications of removing them, often remained on throughout the day if one was out-and about.

Today, women wear hats for many reasons. Hats are popular at music festivals like Coachella for UV protection as well as fashion. In the UK, hats are often worn to special occasions. A popular time for hats is at horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK.  Attended by royalty, a strict dress code is enforced. Hats worn for this event are typically a single color, wide-brimmed hat decorated with feather, ribbons and the like. Another style is called a fascinator. They are smaller and worn more toward the front of the head. Many elementary schools in the United Kingdom have an annual Easter Bonnet Parade on the last day of their semester. Children wear DIY hats and a contest is held.

Across the pond we have the Kentucky Derby hat. The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held on the first Saturday in May in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, in the southwestern United States. The Kentucky Derby started when Meriwether Lewis Clark attended horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK. Eager to recreate these extravagant and festive events, he started the Kentucky Derby.  An event to see and be seen, hats worn for this event are typically wide-brimmed with lots of ornate decorations. There is no such thing as too much with a Kentucky Derby hat! Another Easter hat tradition is the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue in New York City. This event started in the 1870s and grew in popularity, even spawning a movie called, Easter Parade. The original idea was to showcase one’s wealth, taste and good fortune. This tradition has changed over the years and now is a delightful spectacle of wonderous creations posing as hats. While I have not attended, photographs make the scene feel more like a Mardi Gras-like celebration of spring than a walk to church.

All in all, special new clothing did not originate with the Christian celebration of Easter. It is a common practice that predates Christianity in many cultures around the world. Head covering predates Christianity as both a functional piece and a gender and status specific social mandate. Piety joined the mix later and picked up steam quickly. Today, some religions mandate gender-specific head coverings in certain situations and others merely encourage them. Some ignore them altogether.

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