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Miss Annie Mae's Church Hat

Hat worn by Annie Mae McClain to services at the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
(Museum object #2006.103.2)

“But every woman that prayeth or propesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head.”
I Corinthians 11:5

Annie Mae McClain of Milwaukee believed in “looking her best for the Lord.” Each Sunday before going to the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, she carefully chose her outfit, but especially her hat. “Miss Annie Mae,” as she was respectfully called, had a passion for hats. At the time of her death in 2003, she had over 70 hats in her closet, many of them one-of-a-kind. The pink net and red feathered concoction pictured here, possibly the most spectacular in the collection, was one of those special hats. The hat is made from trimmed down rooster tails dyed red and may resemble “an exaggerated version of the rooster tail from which it derived.”

The African American tradition of wearing special head coverings to church goes back to the early days of slavery. One historian has argued that the practice was not an imitation of hats worn by white men and women slave owners, but a statement of dignity. “During the week they belonged to Ole Massa, what they looked like was of little importance. On Saturday night and Sunday, among themselves, they asserted themselves as proud men and women.”

Craig Marberry, author of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, describes the flamboyance, boundless passion, and singular flair African American women have brought to the act of wearing hats to church in order to meet Apostle Paul’s decree mentioned in I Corinthians. Marberry writes, “These captivating hats are not mere fashion accessories. Neither, despite, their biblical roots, are they solely religious headgear. Church hats are a peculiar convergence of faith and fashion that keeps the Sabbath both holy and glamorous.” Miss Annie Mae and her hats fall comfortably into this tradition.

Annie Mae Robinson, born in 1913, grew up in Belzoni, Mississippi and at the age of twenty married Terry McClain, a father of three boys. A few years later Miss Annie Mae’s brother encouraged the McClains to move to Milwaukee for the great job opportunities. At the time Milwaukee had a population of approximately 13,000 African Americans. After World War II Southern blacks migrated to Northern cities in large numbers and within a few years Milwaukee’s black population had grown to 105,000. Most of them lived on the city’s North Side in a community known as “Bronzeville.”

According to her stepson, Joe McClain, Miss Annie Mae grew up in a strong Christian environment. He recalls, “Her whole life besides her work was built around her church.” Choosing a church to attend once they arrived in Milwaukee was a significant decision for the McClains. There were ten African American churches to select from, but in the end they became members of the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, primarily because a large part of the congregation was also from Belzoni. At the time the church was just a store front, but it has moved twice since into successively larger buildings. Miss Annie Mae became an important and beloved member of the church during the over 60 years she attended it.

After living in Milwaukee for a few years, Miss Annie Mae decided she wanted to work, much to the consternation of her husband. She insisted, however, stating, “I’m tired of being broke, I gotta go to work, find me a job.” Her first job was at a tannery, but she soon realized that she could make a living as a beautician since friends, family and neighbors always wanted her to fix their hair. She worked at a beauty parlor on Walnut Street until her retirement, but her customers would not let her retire, so she turned the basement of the McClain home into a beauty parlor.

With the money Miss Annie Mae made at her job, she bought new outfits—and hats. First she shopped at department stores, but in later years went to specialty shops, especially Heads Up Hat Shop on West Silver Spring Drive where she may have purchased the red and pink Jack McConnell hat now in the Society’s collection. Jack McConnell established himself as one of the top milliners in New York City. In late 2005 the owner of Dorel Hat Company said of him, “[He] really was the one who started making better millinery for the African American woman. He’s like a god in that business.” Most of these women prefer to wear unique hats to church, so McConnell marks his one-of-a-kind pieces with a red feather tucked into the label.

After Miss Annie Mae’s death, Carol Lobes decided to honor her mother-in-law’s memory by putting her hat collection on display at Madison’s Olbrich Gardens and let women and girls try them on. The success of that event led to more formal exhibits at the Overture Center in Madison and the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 2006. After the exhibits came down, the hats were auctioned off so that other women could wear them. The proceeds went to the group Women in Focus which helps support the education of minority youth. At least one of the auctioned hats was purchased by a Wisconsin Historical Society volunteer, who plans to wear it to church — continuing the Miss Annie Mae tradition.

[SOURCES: Label text for “Miss Annie Mae’s Hats: Church Hats from the Black Community” exhibition written by Martha Glowacki, Ruth Olson, and Andrea Hoffman; Worland, Gayle. “Top Hats,” Wisconsin State Journal, January 22, 2006, section G, p. 1; Olson, Ruth. “Miss Annie Mae’s Hats: Church Hats from the Black Community,” Wisconsin Academy Review (vol. 52, no. 1, Winter 2006), pp. 27-37.]

LAB


Posted on November 30, 2006

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