Style Observer

Hats Off To The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Eastertide

By Sharon Leach

Sunday, April 21, 2019

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At Olivet Gospel Hall, my family sat in the second pew on the right-hand side. There were no individual chairs as there are in churches these days; back then, we sat on long benches of dark polished wood with uncomfortable backs with cut-outs. I have no recollection of ever sitting on the other side of the church. But I remember that second pew, and looking out the window at the brilliant sunshine. My father sat at the end of the row, my mother on the inside and my younger sister and me in between them. This was seating position was guaranteed because of the mad rush each Sunday morning as my father herded us out of the house as though we were running with the bulls of Pamplona. No one was entitled to those good seats, but he had long staked his claim to them; they were, for reasons best known to him, some sort of god-given, inalienable birthright.

Church on a Sunday morning was our weekly family ritual that was intended to show those on the outside looking in just how much of a strong unit we were. Black nobility. It was the spectator sport upwardly mobile black families participated in without question, a message to the landed gentry, also known as the often-brown, well-heeled eldership, that, unlike the unwashed masses still hung-over and in bed sleeping off their Saturday night excesses, we were serious about entering the kingdom of heaven, and as such, deserved a seat at the Lord's table. Remember, unless a man of my father's position had ambitions of entering politics, there was no higher office to crave. He'd grown up country-poor, no-shoes-to-school-poor, in a family of 11 children. But his was a story of success; he'd successfully left that hardscrabble life behind and had taken the city by storm, and had become a fast-rising business owner out of sheer willpower and acumen. The days of his young bride and him standing at a bus stop, rain or shine, and watching the elders of the church drive past them without a hint of recognition. He now had his own motor vehicle, and he wanted, no, demanded, that they recognise him and what he had achieved with his life. The family structure was living testimony.

This was, of course, before the fissures began showing up.

My sister, Tanya, and I were small children, then still in knee socks; our feet barely came over the edge of the bench. In a sense, this time of family bonding was absolutely essential. For better or for worse, the abiding love I have for my parents and my sister, was formulated right there in that second pew.

In order to prevent the restlessness brought about by fatigue from remaining seated for an hour-and-a-half, my mother distracted us with books. I remember art masterpieces created in my colouring books. After service my mother was always complimented on her children's model behaviour, to which she would always smile coyly.

But it wasn't that I wasn't bored despite the books, despite the dressing up. Even as a young child, I had something of the coquette in me and cared about how I came across to people. When, for example, I was permitted to wear stockings, white children's ones from the States, although they itched fiercely, I persevered. I relished the compliments about how lady-like I looked. But, back then, as is often the case now when I play dress-up for formal affairs that may or may not involve a house of worship, I hated the destination. I hated church.

There was an oppressive atmosphere with the largely unadorned walls. I recall scripture verses inscribed on them, but there were none of the ornate statues of saints or beautiful frescoes and stained glass that would capture my imagination when I got older and visited other churches. We were Brethren who were concerned only with “continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together”. Emphasis on “simply”. The asceticism I encountered there was befitting of some high order in the Catholic Church or maybe the Quakers.

There was inspiration, however, to be found in my mother. A proper wife, she looked the part, always. She loved her dresses, her nice shoes, her handbags. But, above all, she loved her hats. Loved them. To her mind, her fancy outfits were incomplete without them. Which was just as well because her religious beliefs dovetailed with her head being covered in a place of worship, anyway. Or did she adopt this almost fetishised love of hats because her religion conscribed it?

Before converting to my father's denomination when she married him, my mother was of the apostolic faith. So it's safe to say she subscribed to the archaic patriarchal tenet of women being submissive to men: in general, their husbands; in particular, God. One emblem of that submissiveness was headdress. Bare-headedness for women was frowned upon. Who knows if that's why she collected hats the way she did. I remember, as a child, going through her linen closet and encountering hatboxes upon hatboxes. So many hats! But they were all exquisite. She had all kinds, all colours, all shapes; luckily, she had a good head for hats. To alleviate the boredom of church services, I examined them closely. And, depending on the occasion, like, say, Easter Sunday, the hats could become even more elaborate, inspiring a would-be artist, as I thought of myself back then, to try and draw them.

For the purpose of this piece I asked my sister, who now lives in Canada, about a black-and-white photograph I remember, I think it was for my christening, of Mummy in what seems to be a brown structured one with a felt band around the base of the crown. It's a hat that Audrey Hepburn would have worn. I also vidly remember a beret-shaped slouchy black one that I would get to wear later. And a blue hat with white piping. Or was it white with blue piping? Such is the shortcoming of memoir, I suppose. The blurring — and in some instances, the complete spiritual theft — of memory.

What I have no doubt about, however, is that my mother fuelled my subsequent obsession with hats. I became a great wearer of hats, myself, in my late teens and twenties, with my mother foisting the nickname Hat Beloved on me. She would look approvingly at me when I dressed for church and say that I looked like an evangelist. Which made me cringe, actually. Because I knew that, unlike her, I did not wear my hats out of deference to a man, the Church, or even to God. I would say nothing in response, though, because I loved her, and because I did not want to dash her hopes of proselytism for me. The truth was I had already begun to divest myself of the faith with its sexism, classism and racism.

She's dead now, but every so often I think of those hats and what they signified to her. Even now I struggle to comprehend how wearing a hat could be symbolic of anything except an elevated fashion sense.


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