- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - Irma Jean Young-Smith collected crowns.

She began purchasing church hats in the 1960s, eventually becoming known around Pulaski as “The Hat Lady” as her assortment grew. She was participating in a time-honored tradition among black American women, wearing decorative hats as an expression of her religious faith and personal fashion sense.

The hats were such an integral part of her public presentation that her friends and family gave them nicknames. A small brown hat with a bow earned the name “Business.” A wavy red hat was dubbed “Sombrero Rojo.” Others were called “Pink Lady,” ”Diva” and “Robin Hood.” A tall brown hat with a spectacular floral design mounted on one side was christened “Show Stopper.”

She died in March 2016 at age 74. By that time, she’d accumulated 150 hats, a number of them now hard-to-find vintage artifacts. Sunday, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture is opening “Extraordinary Crowns: The Collection of Irma Jean Young-Smith,” a selection of 30 of those hats.

The show provides context for the hats drawn from Young-Smith’s personal life, and from African and black American history. The hat designs are influenced by traditional African hair arrangements and methods slaves used to preserve their heritage. They also reflect 20th-century fashion trends.

“We’re trying to present the hats for their artistic beauty, as well as the relationships to the historical elements,” said Harrison Museum board president Charles Price.

At the opening reception Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., Young-Smith’s family members will speak about her life and her collection.

Young-Smith focused on fashion as a way of coping with the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis, said Guy Smith, one of her sons. “She didn’t let it define her.” Her hats were “kind of a source of escape for her,” he added. His father, Robert Smith, indulged her penchant for hat shopping. “He enjoyed seeing her happy.”

More than just fashion statements, hats like those his mother wore served as coming-of-age symbols. Guy Smith described a tradition where young girls would wear simple bonnets in church, then graduate to more grown-up headwear about age 10 to 12, culminating in a fancier, custom-made hat around age 16.

“It’s one of those spoken but unspoken things,” he said. “It is such an integral part of womanhood, the significance of that hat.”

In decades past, the hats could also double as proclamations and celebrations of freedom for women who made their livings during the week as housemaids and nannies, Smith said.

Roanoke museum collections consultant Ashley Webb curated the show for the Harrison Museum. Hollins University student Tamika Torain, who interned with the Harrison, compiled research on the history of headwear and hair styles with an eye toward how those developments are reflected in the designs of the church hats Young-Smith owned.

In some instances, illustrated in the show, the hats echo the tall swooping curves of crown-like hairstyles found in African countries.

Other hat designs evoke how slave women coped with grim realities. Various laws back to the late 1700s required them to keep their hair hidden with knotted headscarves, and records exist of slave owners forcing black women to shave off their hair. Yet the women found ways to subvert these intended humiliations by making the headscarves decorative. The museum show displays beautiful hats Young-Smith owned, including “Business,” that resemble these headscarf designs.

Other hats follow and incorporate fashions from the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, when American blacks had more freedom to express themselves but also endured Jim Crow discrimination. Photos dating to the late 1890s show black American women sporting hats not unlike Young-Smith‘s.

Her collection included hats from an Essence Magazine fashion line that are difficult to find today, Guy Smith said.

The museum’s literature accompanying the show also includes an etiquette guide to wearing crowns. The list of tips includes “don’t wear a hat that’s wider than your shoulders,” ”don’t wear a crown that’s darker than your shoes” and “wear your crown with pride, and walk with your head held high.”

A different version of this show appeared in the summer of 2016 at the Fine Arts Center for the New River Valley in Pulaski. Titled “Beauty and Grace in the Midst of Adversity,” the show served as both an art exhibition and a tribute to Young-Smith’s life.

“The hats really resonated with people in a lot of different ways,” Guy Smith said. “Everybody seemed to enjoy the hats for different reasons.”

Though Young-Smith had battled rheumatoid arthritis starting in her 20s, the grace of her carriage never betrayed the pain she coped with. This quality stayed true later in life as she dealt with kidney complications. The Pulaski show was intended as “an acknowledgement of people that are struggling with something silently,” her son said.

The Harrison Museum is selling $1 postcards bearing images of Young-Smith’s hats. Half the proceeds from those sales will benefit the Harrison Museum, while the other half will go to the National Kidney Foundation, Guy Smith said.

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