In accordance with 1 Corinthians 11:5 in the Holy Bible, Paul instructed women who were praying or prophesying to cover their heads. Failure to cover their heads would be same as if they had shaved their heads, which was considered shameful at that time. This has led to a long history of women wearing various head coverings in church, including hats.
In Biblical times, women were expected to wear veils all of the time, especially when they were in church. If a woman did not cover her head, she was considered disgraced. These veils covered women's heads and often a portion of their faces as well. Using these head coverings was rooted in the cultural differences of Biblical times, which dictated that women should be submissive to their husbands. The veil showed submission to her husband in the presence of God.
Between Biblical times and the 19th century, women in the church continued to follow the proclamation of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Women wore head coverings in church and throughout the rest of their days in public. These coverings ranged from veils to caps and came in a variety of styles. The styles changed to match the cultural changes that took place during this long time period. Women in different countries would wear different head coverings that were acceptable in their home country.
With the dawning of the 19th century, some churches decided that head coverings were no longer required of women. Other churches decided to switch from the veils and caps of earlier years to bonnets instead. These church bonnets were often nicer bonnets than those worn outside of the church. Women also were not required to wear a bonnet at all times. The fashionable bonnets became a way for middle and upper-class women to show off their status in the church, which was far different from the original purpose of women wearing a head covering in church.
Early 20th Century
During the earlier half of the 20th century, women, especially the wealthy, moved from bonnets to fancy hats. These hats also were meant to show off the social status of a woman and were more of a reflection of habit and fashion than religion. Poorer women still wore bonnets or plain hats. While these hats were no longer a requirement, many women found it shameful to appear in a church without wearing a hat.
Late 20th Century
Around the middle of the 20th century, women in church would often forgo wearing a hat at all. By this time, the original religious meaning of women wearing a hat in church had been long forgotten. The fashion statement the hats made were no longer required as a social status symbol. Women and men in the late 20th century had more equal status. Some churches, though, do still have many women who wear hats, especially southern churches that have higher numbers of African-American members. For some, going to church is an opportunity to see all the hats in addition to a religious experience.