“Has any one a brown turban or soft hat that I might touch up a little for a girl of 19 years? She needs it, and I should like to make her happy for Easter Sunday. I will gladly pay postage or express. –H.B.
All women will appreciate what this means, and perhaps some one will have just the thing for an Easter bonnet.”
—-from the Chicago Tribune column “A Friend In Need” (kind of like a vintage Craigslist), circa 1920
“[Easter]…is the time of all times for us to dress in our very best. Every girl feels that she must have her new hat, or there is no joy in life.”
As these quotations make clear, back in the day Easter just wasn’t Easter if it didn’t come with a brand new outfit—and especially a new hat! 🙂
Originally meant to be worn during Easter church services, Easter bonnets became a highlight of American Easter Parades, along with the trendiest of fashions, particularly among high society. This is largely thanks to the elite of New York, who streamed out of church on Easter in 1870 “dressed up to the nines in their best hats” and promenaded down Fifth Avenue. By 1893 this impromptu parade had become a “New York institution,” with each year featuring a “bewildering exhibition of beauty and styles” as more and more people gathered to watch the rich model the latest fashion trends.
Thanks to the ample newspaper coverage generated by this display of wealth and beauty, the elite of other cities decided to start promenading on Easter as well. In Chicago, this meant an Easter parade down Lake Shore Drive as the residents of the Gold Coast came out of their mansions and their limousines to attend church along the Lake.
Since the weather was often bad—1920 saw a blizzard that cancelled the parade, and 1926 saw the rich tramping through “squashy snow and muddy water” after a hard rain—this often meant the rich paraded in thick furs or long coats, with umbrellas at hand. Even so, the latest fashions could still be glimpsed by a keen reporter’s eye—and of course, everyone could see the hats. Here’s a sample of Easter hat styles from a 1923 Tribune parade description:
~ a “gray hat trimmed with ostrich”
~ a “brilliant red hat”
~ a “small hat embroidered in many bright colors”
~ a “small black turban wreathed with silver leaves”
~ a black hat with “a flamingo red feather,” plus “a huge corsage of the same color sweet peas”
As early as 1923, though, the cloche hat dominated the Roaring Twenties Easter fashion scene. While the Tribune noted that “large picture hats, which always are good style, were selected by some of the best dressed women in society as their Easter bonnets,” most women “wore the cloche shaped hats which Paris has decreed the most chic.” This trend stuck, more or less, throughout the decade.
Now, a cloche hat might sound kind of boring to you. After all, they’re all the same shape, right? But check out these vintage Easter hats below:
Of course, hats were just a small, if fun, part of the Easter Parade fashion scene. The parade also highlighted current fashion trends in dresses, coats, and other accessories as well, many of which came straight from Paris. Unsurprisingly, thanks to the discovery of King Tut, 1923 saw a number of dresses with “Egyptian embroidery,” and Indo-Chinese and paisley motifs were also popular. 1920 saw the introduction of the “tunic,” which brought “flounce” to the longer waistlines of the early 20s, while 1921 saw an explosion of organdy, satin, chiffon and velvet, with “wraps helped out by a fringe of money fur around the hem” being the height of fashion.
As for colors, black was a popular choice. While this might seem odd, black is actually a traditional American Easter choice. America’s earliest Easter parades took place shortly after the Civil War, and many of the early marchers were women in mourning. This practice was revived in Paris in 1923, when a number of famous Parisian actresses “refuse[d] to wear anything except black, on account of Sarah Bernhardt’s death.” Fashion-conscious Americans were quick to adopt it that year as well. Ever since, it was a popular color choice throughout the 1920s on Easter, though such outfits were usually augmented by small pops of color.
Men also took part in Easter fashion. While most men dressed in black suits with white spats for their Sunday outing, the Easter parade in Paris 1929 saw an explosion of color among the male set. Men wore “strawberry-colored trousers, with chocolate coats and hats the color of rosewood,” plus “more shades of blue than the haberdashers could name.” Newspaper ads also appealed directly to men, with an emphasis on new hats and clothes as well.
But where did this fixation on new clothes for Spring come from? Was it simple vanity, as the Tribune often hinted at in its Easter parade articles, or something more?
According to an article at the The Eternal Hedonist, wearing special hats festooned with flowers is likely a throwback to ancient customs of wearing wreaths of flowers or leaves in one’s hair to welcome Spring. Early Easter bonnets often featured fresh flowers, particularly lilies, daffodils, azaleas, Hyacinths, pussy willows, and tulips, so they could be seen as an extension of this practice and an acknowledgement of the fecundity of spring, the promise of new life, and a reawakening of Nature after winter.
New clothes may also be taken as a symbol of rebirth, just like many other Easter trappings. As a Tribune article by Edwin Holt Hughes on Easter customs says, “the new clothes symbolize the new person walking into the new life.” Rather than mere vanity, Hughes implies, they relate to the Christian idea of wearing one’s “Sunday Best” to church—and how that should be even more important on Easter, the day of Christ’s rebirth. Wearing special finery with Easter is also a long held tradition, possibly dating back to Emperor Constantine IEmperor Constantine I, who “ordered his subjects to dress in their finest and parade” in honor of Christ’s death.
According to Wikipedia, however, wearing new clothing on Easter may actually be a way to avert disaster. There are references to wearing new clothing on Easter going back to Shakespeare’s time—and how the wearer will court bad luck if they do not do so. This seems to back up what Schauffler and Rice cite in Easter: its history, celebration, spirit, and significance as related in prose and verse (1917), which claims that youth in East Yorkshire consider it “unlucky” to “omit wearing new clothes on Easter,” and one must buy a “new article of dress or personal ornament” to ward away bad luck and crows and rooks who might roost near their farms and ruin their crops.
Ultimately, though, as McSpadden writes in The Book of Holidays (1917), “Easter is a day of joy. It comes at just the right time to awaken a feeling of gladness in us all. Winter is over. The new life of Spring is at hand…Nature…conquer[s] death.”
E X T R A ! E X T R A !
While the blog Dressing Vintage claims that folks started wearing Easter bonnets during the 1930s thanks to Irving Berlin’s popular song “Easter Parade” (which is clearly wrong), it does offer some fun vintage photos of some epic Easter hats, such as this little gem:
Or this lovely number from the 1940s:
Or maybe traditional bonnets are more your style? If so, check out this 1879 Easter bonnet from a copy of Ladies’ Home Journal:
There are tons more of these delightful feathered and flowered monstrosities from 1897 over at the wonderful blog Wearing History.
Or how about some vintage 1920s inspiration for your own Easter bonnet? Then check out this 1921 book Make Your Own Hats by Mrs. Gene Allen Martin. The entire text can be found here online for free, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s digital collections.
Or maybe you want to see some vintage greeting cards? Check out this sweet Easter bunny egg canoe:
Whatever you do this Easter, I hope you all have a wonderful Spring!!!!! 😀