The rites of Easter have deep roots — from the Germanic goddess Ēostre’s connection with Easter hares, to 13th century egg-decorations, to seasonal pop culture. A most prominent secular symbol is the Easter bonnet, popularized in the 1948 Irving Berlin Easter Parade musical and engraved in Americana in the 1880s when, in New York City, after attending religious services in Fifth avenue cathedrals, high society would stroll the avenue in holiday finery, most especially in new spring hats.
For decades, Tucson milliner Toni Ham has hand-crafted her blocked hats (and has demonstrated her art at the October Tucson Meet Yourself folklife festival). In her tiny Tucson studio, Toni mixes flowers, feathers and fabric into colorful, elegant hats that adorn church women across the nation, as well as here in Tucson.
Bolts of fabric and tins full of charms and faux gemstones await transformation into Toni’s fine Easter bonnets — all telling the story of this traditional art, which Toni learned from her mother, her grandmother, and the ladies of the small Texas town where she was born. Toni recalls her first hat, a simple fabric bonnet with ribbon ties made by her grandmother. She also remembers what she was taught about the practice of wearing a hat: It’s not just for Church services; it’s a way to show style and attitude. It’s all about how you perch the hat atop your head and how you decorate it, Toni recollects.
Toni learned the art of detailing hats with layers of veiling and embellishments from her grandmother. With hats a sign of class in society in 1800s America, African-American women embraced Sunday Church service finery as a symbol of devotion, dignity and self-respect. Hats allowed the wearers to step out into the world with flair and confidence.
Today, Toni continues her millinery arts, with no two hats alike in their effects of layering, folding, stitching and decorating. Both wearers and observers agree that there is magic and storytelling in beautiful Toni’s folk art tradition.
- “Brims, Traditions and Trims, The Heart and Soul of African-American Hat-Making,” Tucson Meet Yourself Magazine, 2011 edition.
- Marberry, Craig Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2000