Credit for the EASTER BONNET in American culture is given to the song “Easter Parade” written in 1933 by Irving Berlin. More on this in a moment, but it must be noted that while partially true, special bonnets or hats for Easter pre-date Mr. Berlin by a long mile and are not an American invention.
The roots of the Easter bonnet are tied to Christian customs of Lent from all over Europe and for centuries. After the forty-day period of fasting and pious reflection, people welcomed the coming of Spring and Easter, both of which are symbolic of new life and rebirth. Embracing the special celebration, people would wear new clothes to the Holy Week events, often with bright colors and adornments paying homage to the joyous season. This is where the term “Sunday Best” in reference to a dressy ensemble for church derives. Bonnets and hats —as a standard article of clothing for a proper ensemble back in the day— provided a perfect frame for flowers, pretty ribbons and lace, and other Spring and Easter related decorations.
In the United States, the concept of specifically designed Easter bonnets or hats did not become a tradition until after the Civil War. The “Sunday of Joy” was the first Easter after the war ended, when crowds took to the streets as a public show of ending the national mourning and embracing peace and the renewal of American life. Folks wore bright, pastel-colored clothing and ostentatiously decorated hats. By 1870 it was fast becoming a tradition to wear flashy clothes with a Spring and Easter motif to church on Easter Sunday, and by all accounts the first Easter Parade in New York City was an unplanned, spontaneous event as the finely dressed people exited St. Patricks Cathedral and strolled along Fifth Avenue.
The annual New York Easter Parade continued over the decades, but truly reached its peak in the 1940s, and for that the credit at least partially goes to the song “Easter Parade” by Irving Berlin. Written for the Broadway Musical As Thousands Cheer, the 1933 song appeared in a few films, including Holiday Inn and sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, before hitting it big in the 1948 musical film Easter Parade. Sung by Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, the movie and the song were massive hits, causing a resurgence of elaborate Easter Day outfits and hats.
Over time, the tradition of special floral hats for Easter waned. Some still wear new frilly dresses for Easter Church services and picnics, especially children. The New York City Easter Parade also continues, although it seems to have morphed into an occasion to display outrageous costume-like hats and with scant religious tradition involved.
The examples below are from vintage cards and magazine adverts dating to the early 20th-century.