By BRAD KELLAR
Betty Epps is a woman who wears many hats. Especially when attending church. I have 52 hats of all kinds,” Epps explained. “I have big hats, small hats, tidy hats, cowboy hats. I always wear a cap when I am walking.”
She can always be counted upon to be dressed in her finest attire each Sunday as she serves in her roles as an evangelist and with the social ministry at Pilgrim Tabernacle Church of Deliverance in Greenville. However, she really plans to step out today.
“There are two days when women will always wear hats to church, on Easter and Mother’s Day,” Epps said. “There are more hats worn on those days in every church, in every church.”
Epps said she holds to the Apostle Paul’s doctrine found in 1 Corinthians 11.
“Women were to cover their head when they went to the house of the Lord in prayer,” Epps said, noting it is a tradition which is strongly supported by black women.
“Most of the women of my generation wore hats,” she said. “Most of the older women would wear hats. My grandmother, my great aunt, they all wore hats to church.”
The history of wearing hats in general dates all the way back to ancient Greece, at least. A tomb painting at Thebes shows a man wearing a straw hat.
St. Clement, who died in 818 AD, is considered one of the patron saints of hatmakers. According to legend when Clement was a monk and on a pilgrimage he used some carded wool in his sandals. The friction matted the wool to produce an early form of felt.
The popularity of women’s hats as a fashion accessory began to emerge in the late 17th century. A maker of women’s hats became referred to as “milliners” starting in 1529, referring to the products such as ribbons, gloves and straws for which Milan and the northern Italian regions were well known.
Although hat-wearing by women began to decline during the early-to-mid 20th century, the tradition of sporting elaborate hats to horse racing events is still maintained at major horse racing events such as the Royal Ascot in Britain, as well as the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events.
“Even the queen, she wears hats,” Epps said.
Wearing a beautiful hat is an integral part of the church experience, Epps said, in particular on Easter Sunday. Women are expected to look their best in matching gloves, purses and shoes.
“But the hats are the most important item,” Epps said. “They always let their hat be the focus of the outfit.”
Although the hats in her collection come in every size, every shape and every color, there are a few which carry special meaning, including the one she wore to the 2008 funeral of her beloved husband John.
Another is an elaborate blue feathered hat she purchased in Dallas and wore to the local observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a hat which Epps said drew a lot of attention.
“They all said, ‘Where did you get that hat, I’ve never seen another one like it,’” she recalled with pride.
Epps expects to be dressed to impress at church again today, with matching gloves, shoes and purse. And, of course, she would not forget to top it all off with one of her favorite hats.
Epps said she cannot wait to show off her outfit and to see what everyone else will be wearing, as she expects all the women at her church to do the same.
“It is something spiritual to them,” Epps said. “When a woman puts on her hat, it’s glorious.”