Hats on Parade: Sundays in Harlem

Every Sunday morning, hundreds of tourists pour out of chartered busses on W 125th street in Harlem, with one thing on their minds: gospel music.  The fame of Harlem’s gospel choirs draws thousands of visitors each month to the otherwise shunned neighborhood, with tourists–primarily from Europe and Asia–lining up outside of churches hours beforehand just to catch a few minutes of the music.  It is a spectacle that many churches in Harlem are banking on–striking up deals with tour companies to help subsidize tight finances in the face of dwindling membership–and the performances are tremendous. The result is often a church filled with tourists instead of congregants–at least for the music worship services.

But stick around for the prayer service after the music is over, and a whole other side of Harlem Sundays emerges. The joyous noise of a choir, organ and drum kit gives way to a tight-knit familial spirit of dedication and devotion, as a pastor prays for each individual congregant by name or a younger member tends to an elderly sister in the back. Members hold hands and testify. They sing songs together as one.

And as the service lets out, the greatest treat of all begins: the parade of hats.

“In the Bible it says you’re supposed to cover your head when you go to church,” explains Evetta Petty, owner of Harlem’s Heaven hat boutique. “And in the black church, if you’re going to cover your head, you’re going to cover it with something fabulous.”  The tradition of fabulous hat fashion continues on today, and each Sunday is a veritable parade of millinery’s best as women young and old don their hats for church.

It was thirty years ago when someone stopped Evetta after a church service to ask her where she got her fabulous hat.  Evetta, a vivacious woman with a contagious laugh who worked as a buyer in corporate fashion, had made it herself. “I would love to get a hat like that,” the woman told her, sparking an idea that would change Evetta’s life and career.

Three decades later, Evetta has become the milliner for Harlem’s Sunday set.  Her boutique, nestled into a little store front on 147th street, has become a mecca of sorts, with women coming from around the country to have a hat custom made for a special occasion or event.

“I usually have the women bring in their suit or dress so we can experiment” explains Evetta. They then try on different shapes, take measurements, choose fabrics, embellishments and finishing touches for the hat, which will then take about three weeks to make. It is a process that builds relationships.  Evetta has been dressing some women for twenty years or more.

Though the congregants of Harlem make up her bread and butter, Evetta doesn’t shy away from avant-garde designs or experimentation.  She’s crafted hats for shoots in Vogue magazine, topped the heads of celebrities, and makes everyday fantasy pieces for the Kate Middleton lovers out there.

So if Harlem Gospel is on your list next time you’re in New York, perhaps a stop uptown to Harlem’s Heaven is in order for a truly authentic Gospel experience.

 {Video from this post co-produced by Erin Brown and Kyli Singh}

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