The inspiration for composer Irving Berlin’s popular song, “Easter Parade,” released in 1933, was the actual Easter Parade that took place for decades in New York City. Beginning in the 1870s, on Easter Sunday afternoon, well-to-do residents paraded down Fifth Avenue showing off their holiday finery. The song touted the fact that women’s hats were an intrinsic part of Easter, with lyrics such as the following:
With all the frills upon it
You’ll be the grandest lady
The definition of Easter bonnet is a hat worn expressly for that holiday. New clothes came to be associated with Easter, the season of renewal.
The song was used in the 1948 movie musical “Easter Parade,” starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, which centered around that New York tradition. There is even a scene in the movie, set in a hat shop, where women model all kinds of elaborate hats for Fred Astaire’s character, who is choosing one as a gift for his dancing partner.
Many other communities had Easter parades, including Vincennes. Regarding Easter in 1911, for instance, the newspaper the “Vincennes Capital” reported: “With bright, clear sunshine and a crisp bracing atmosphere, feminine Vincennes participated in a pageant of gowns and hats of wonderful variety and magnificent color Easter Sunday afternoon.”
While a stylish new hat was virtually a requirement for Easter, hats were, of course, long an important part of women’s attire. The number of stores in Vincennes selling only millinery through the decades, illustrates the popularity of this fashion accessory.
That number varied over the years. Based on listings in Vincennes City directories, there were nine milliners in the city in 1881, and five in 1900. The number peaked in the 1914-15 directory, with 11 listed, not surprisingly, many of them women. There were still eight milliners in 1930, then the number continued to decline.
Besides stores devoted to selling only hats, the big downtown department stores carried them, too. Over the years, Gimbel-Bond, J.C. Penney, and Hills were among the stores with hat departments. For Easter 1958, Hills advertised hats from 5th Avenue designer’s, along with Paris copies.
By the 1960s, there were only two millinery shops in the city, Dolly’s Hat Shop at 314 Main Street, managed by Mrs. Juanita B. Davis, and Lyles Millinery Shop at 405½ Main, operated by Mrs. Maude J. Lyles.
The popularity of women wearing hats faded by the end of that decade, partly due to the fact that fashion came to be aimed more at young people, who might wear a warm hat during cold weather, but didn’t wear one as a fashion accessory. By 1971, there are no milliners listed in local city directories.
The Easter Parade in New York City is still held today, but pales in comparison to its peak of popularity in the 1930s and 40s, when it drew as many as a million people.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “Lost Vincennes,” will be released by The History Press on April 10.
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