April Showers / Finishing the Hat

April 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Religion, says Durkheim, is all about group solidarity. Religious rituals both reflect and create this sentiment of unity and group feeling. The central ritual symbols, notably the group totem and objects imbued with its spirit, are really representations of the group. These objects are of the group, created by the group, and for the group – the group and not its individual members.

I don’t usually think of my world as particularly totemistic or even very religious – certainly not compared with the spiritually charged world inhabited by the members of the clans Durkheim was thinking about, with their churinga and other sacred objects. But I was at a baby shower yesterday, and the day before that, my wife went to a bridal shower. And both of these featured the Ceremony of the Hat.

This is a rite practiced by females in North America, particularly those of European descent, when they gather to celebrate one of their number who is in a state of transition – from single to married, from childlessness to motherhood. OK, no need to go all Horace Miner Nacerima here; most people know the drill. As the woman being honored unwraps her gifts, someone gathers the discarded ribbons and threads them into a paper plate or in some other way creates a hat, which the honoree then models.

(Click on the image for a larger view. Want to see more examples?
Search for “bridal shower hat” at Google Images.)

No doubt, showers have a very rational, utilitarian component. The bride-to-be or mother-to-be gets a lot of stuff that she’ll need in her new role. The online registry has rationalized the process even further, aligning demand and supply. No surprises. Gift-giving has become predictable, controlled, calculable (“number desired,” “number received”), and efficient.

So what’s up with the hat? I didn’t ask, but if I had, the explanation would surely have been along the lines of “Oh, it’s just silly, it’s just for fun.” But Durkheim, lurking in the far corner of the party room, sees something else. The shower is not just a party for the future bride or mom; it’s a ritual, and as such it is for the group itself. These people, come together from their disparate daily lives, and at least temporarily, they are united into something that transcends any individual.

The hat symbolizes the group – woven together from each person’s ribbon into a single unified and extraordinary object. If you’re at a shower and you have your camera, you might take a picture of the linens or lingerie, the porta-crib or Pat the Bunny. Or you might not. But you always take a picture of the hat.


Ellen Christine Millinery said...

a wonderful note, to describe that silly hat we've all made, as a part of a rite of passage. so true, and so evocative.

Anonymous said...

My experience with this ritual suggests that social class may be an interesting if not important element. The showers I've attended for women from working class backgrounds have always included the hat, but those I've attended for women from middle and/or upper class standings have never included this. I wonder if anyone else has experienced similar?

Jay Livingston said...

Anon, that's an interesting observation. My own experience with showers is far too limited (N=2) to generalize. But I'll be sensitive to the class-hat hypothesis from now on.

Ellen Christine Millinery said...

I've been to showers on lots of levels, and the ribbon thing has been cultural, not so much class oriented. It's definitely something to take notes on....I deal with brides, so I'm going to ask everyone who comes in now..........I smell a research project in the air!