New Yorkers strolling down Fifth Avenue this weekend could have a surprise in store for them—or on their heads. Between 49th and 57th streets, a parade of elaborately festooned sartorialists will take over, carrying on a tradition that’s lasted almost a century and a half.
The New York City Easter Bonnet Festival and Parade remains one of New York’s best and oldest Easter traditions. Since the 1870s, thousands of people have gathered every Easter on Fifth Avenue to showcase their Sunday finery.
“People wear a variety of hats to the parade,” Linda Pagan, a member of the NYC Milliners Guild, said. “Last year I wore a black straw hat that was shaped like a basket, with pink peonies in it.”
Many of the hats feature or imitate flowers, taking their cue from the lavish flower displays that ornament churches during the holiday. But the variety extends far beyond just florals and the traditional haberdashery—past participants’ accessory themes have ranged from aviation to Starbucks to city landmarks, and beyond.
“I don’t know what I am going to wear for this year’s parade yet,” Pagan said. “I always wait until inspiration strikes me.”
Luckily, when inspiration does strike, she’s well-stocked to follow up: “I have a whole shop I can choose from.”
Though many participants dress to the nines, it’s not a black-tie-only affair.
“Attendees were wearing just about anything—from super casual in jeans and t-shirts to more formal Easter attire,” Heather Cross, a journalist who writes about New York City events, said about last year’s parade.
Animal companions also get to partake in the festivities—dogs, especially, get into the spring spirit for the event.
“People dress up their babies and dogs in Easter bonnets, which are both super cute,” Cross said.
This combination of people, animals, costumes, and hats makes this parade anything but ordinary.
“The Easter parade is more of a carnival,” Pagan said. “Some people make silly hats to wear, whereas the members of the guild wear the hats we normally wear.”
It all may seem a bit bizarre—how did a tradition so seemingly random begin? The parade isn’t even officially organized by anyone: People just flock to the street, which is dutifully cordoned off to traffic by local police each year.
Like any tradition, the parade has a unique history.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, churchgoers began to dress elaborately for the holiday, taking a hint from the Gothic churches. These churches, including Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, decorated their sanctuaries with a multitude of flowers for the event. Inspired by the floral finery, the people began incorporating flowers and other ornate items into their dress.
As the tradition began, Easter quickly became as much of a fashion event as a religious one, with people picking their finest clothing to showcase. Those who could not afford extravagant clothing attended the parade as spectators in hope of discovering the latest trends.
The grandeur of the parade inspired not only the fashion of the time, but the arts. Irving Berlin even wrote a song titled, “Easter Parade,” in which he captured the essence of the parade when he said, “Never saw you look quite so pretty before. Never saw you dressed quite so lovely. What’s more, I could hardly wait to keep our date this lovely Easter morning ... For in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.”
By 1900, the Easter Parade had successfully turned the holiday into a commercial event. But not everyone was pleased. Critics thought the spectacle placed more importance on the wealth and possessions of the paraders rather than the religious importance of the day itself. Regardless, people continued buying more and more accessories and clothing to show off their status on the big day.
Though the parade is always photographed by the press, there’s much more to be gained from actually attending than from looking at the photos, according to Cross.
“I think the most interesting part of the event is the fact that you can actually talk to the people about their bonnets—what inspired their ideas, how much time it took to put them together, etc.,” she said.
Cross’s favorite hat last year consisted of a pink, sombrero-esque base. Exploding from it was an incredible treelike formation of flowers, Easter eggs, butterflies, and leaves. Towering many feet over its wearer, the hat took the holiday and spring weather to heart in its design.
“That was the most impressive one I saw when I attended the parade,” Cross said.
“Christine Roemer, a fellow Milliner, wore my favorite hat last year,” Pagan said. “She always wears fantastic hats. They’re always a bit dandyish and I really love that.”
More recently, the parade is not as widespread as it was during its peak, but the celebration is still thriving among a lively contingent. The parade has declined in the last 50 or 60 years, but people still keep going and keep showing their spring style every Easter Sunday.
So whether William and Kate’s expectant baby has put you back in the British wedding hat sort of mood, or you want to try your hand at creating your own costume, the Easter Bonnet Festival and Parade is sure to be an interesting way to spend Easter—even if you don’t celebrate the holiday.
The 2013 Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.