TEXT & PHOTOS BY DOMINIQUE JAMES
I’m not a hat person. I don’t pull together an outfit thinking I’m somehow under-dressed without some kind of head covering. A hat, any hat, is not a significant part of my wardrobe.
Sure, like many, I own a few hats, accumulated through the years, mostly gathering dust, waiting their turn to crown my head—a whimsical purchase here, a gift from someone there. My current inventory includes several baseball caps, a straw hat, a beanie, a beret, a fedora, a Gatsby cap, a newsboy cap, and even a very proper and very authentic sailor’s cap, among others.
But despite my tall stature as the proud owner of several hats, it’s not as if I have to always wear one or another when I’m out and about. For me, a headgear is something that must be worn when it absolutely needs to be worn, and not usually something that renders an ensemble properly complete for the sake of completeness, or for the sake of being proper.
Seriously, about the only times I’d wear a hat, is when I’m maybe either feeling a bit sartorially adventurous or bored, which is, of course, rare, or, when convention or necessity dictates that the wearing of one—such as the unavoidable dress-to-the-nines occasions where everyone is somehow required to admire everyone else on the virtue of looks alone, or when the weather is too cold (and also, too hot), or when safety concerns and sensibility at work and at play, is absolutely demanded.
Understand that I don’t detest hats. I have no strong dislike for them. In fact, for reasons I don’t even understand myself, I actually do somewhat like them. Many times I’ve sauntered down isles of stores showing hats upon hats for sale, looked at many of them with adoration and lust. And I’ve been tempted more than once to aimlessly loiter inside hat shops where I'd find one or two that I'd like and almost buy. And I’ve even bookmarked a couple of online hat shops showcasing a dizzying array of styles and colors. And there was this one time when I’ve asked a fashion designer friend for expert advice on matters pertaining to hats. (I’m certainly lucky to count fashion designers among my closest friends!)
Still, my regard for hats is mostly touch-and-go. My fancy for hats would be tickled whenever I see a picture in magazines or on the Internet of a fine-looking gentleman smartly donned in a hat, wishing I look even just half as good too, but I’d promptly forget about it when other things I find more interesting comes to my attention, fountain pens and on-ear headphones chief among them. (Why? I don’t really know.) As for hats, it’s probably because I couldn’t quite convince myself that I look good in it. It does absolutely nothing for my looks.
Because I tend to pay no particular attention to hats, even when I’m wearing one, I’ve managed to find myself in a couple of unfortunate situations when, ironically, I shouldn’t be wearing any head covering at all.
One was when I first visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. As I recall, it was a particularly cold winter day, with the kind of cold that seeps deep into the very marrow of your bones. I was wrapped head to foot like a burrito. I wore a tight beanie, so tight that it clamped my brains.
No sooner than having taken a few steps towards the altar, an authoritative tap on my shoulder and a strong male voice alerted me: “Take off your hat, please.” The voice belonged to one of the many young, very fit, able-bodied guards in smart civilian clothing who keeps watch of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the inside. He almost looked like a fashion model. The words he spoke and the words I heard were as cold as that winter day. There was no hint of warmth even as he uttered, “please.”
The tone of his voice was a combination of exasperation and disbelief, spiced with threat and urgency. It was as if he was saying, do it right now or I'll throw you out. It sounded much like a military command than a polite request. He was all business, and I don't think he was in the mood to exchange pleasantries. I wonder how many times he says it each day and each time he’s on duty?
I quickly realized my mistake. Horrified and mortified, I pulled off the beanie and slid it into my jacket pocket without argument or protestation. My unruly hair has mottled into clumps and won’t budge despite my best efforts to tease out the strands with my fingers. I contritely mumbled my apologies as I continued to vainly straighten my hair, but he was already walking away from me. I doubt he heard me, but there was no need to hear my sheepish, whispered apology. My hat was already off, which was all he really cared.
I went to Catholic schools most of my school life, and with that kind of rigid upbringing, it has been more than amply inculcated upon my thick skull that wearing hat inside the church (or generally, when inside any building for that matter) is disrespectful, and I should have known better.
It is believed that this cultural tradition has its roots from the Bible. Addressing the Corinthians, the almost mythic apostle Paul once admonished, “A man ought not to cover his head since he is the image and glory of God.”
The force of this tradition is so strong that even in some mafia movies I’ve seen, hardened but ultra fashionable Catholic Italian gangsters are always gentleman enough and respectful enough and contrite enough to automatically doff their hats when entering a church. (And all the while, remaining properly coiffed. I wonder how they do it!)
There are, of course, a couple of exceptions.
First, the Pope and priests wear a zucchetto when officiating religious services and administering rites. A zucchetto is a skull cap so small that it’s hardly noticeable especially when you’re sleepy and not particularly attentive during a service, or when you’re seated in the last pew. Second, the other exception, is when a military or police officer or uniformed service personnel is on duty while participating in the service.
When it comes to women, as you might know, or suspect, it’s the other way around. Women are allowed, in fact, encouraged, to wear hats (and veils) inside the church. The way I see it, and if not for anything else, it’s just making a fashion statement really, especially when women are wearing what’s called a fascinator, a kind of very showy and perfectly useless hat. In any case, if you’re wondering, yes, it’s also the very same apostle Paul, speaking to the very same Corinthians, who said that women should, in fact, wear head covering inside the church, in the form of a proper hat or a veil, for the very same reason—as a sign of respect.
Anyway, the fact is, it was unfortunate that I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral on a particularly frigid day, playing very much the part of a tourist, with camera in hand, intent on taking pictures, and overwhelmed upon seeing the cavernous grandeur of its interior for the very first time, that in taking it all in, and dwarfed in awe, I simply forgot to take off my beanie.
You think I’ve learned my lesson since that supposedly memorable incident? No, sir!
When I moved to Georgia to rejoin my family, after almost five years of living in New York City, I would attend the Sunday service at the All Saints Catholic Church. This was where my youngest sister, Donna, got married to Ed. It’s a modern church with modern architecture. I like going to All Saints because they have a really nice, huge choir, always dressed in gown during service, and which always sounded like they are in concert.
One particular Sunday, I remember looking intently at the huge but surprisingly plain and weather-worn wooden cross hanging outside the church which can be seen through the altar behind three huge panes of clear glass that served as a wall. I was thinking I’d like to take a picture of the cross with my iPhone and post it on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Path, for all my friends to see. I quickly formulated a fool-proof scheme to sneak back in once everyone was let out after the service, walk right up to the altar and take a few quick snaps. My plan seemed perfectly sensible. I’ll be in and out in a jiffy. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t anticipate any trouble, and I didn't hink anyone will stop me, except perhaps suffer questioning stares from whoever might still be left inside the church when they notice what I was doing. I promised to make a sign of the cross when approaching and leaving the altar to make sure I was respectful enough, and to make whatever amends to whatever perceived trespass I might be committing. Yes, it was a very good plan. I smiled to myself, eager to put the whole thing into action.
I was wearing a newsboy cap that Sunday, which I dutifully took off when we entered the church, exactly like how the well-dressed gangsters from the mafia movies I’ve seen would do it, and wore it back on after the service when we exited. I asked my mother to walk to the car ahead of me and wait there while I go back in to take a few shots. By that time, my mother was already tired of me taking pictures of something that she stopped wondering what exactly I was up to.
As soon as most parishioners were out, just as I planned, I went back in. I started walking towards the altar, all the while playing in my cap-covered head the simple and perfect 1-2-3 heist I was about to execute. But even before I neared the alter, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and when I looked back, there stood a stern-looking Deacon, still in alb, a white liturgical vestment he wore during service. I distinctly heard him saying, “Please take off your hat inside the house of God.” He wasn’t smiling, and just as before, I was horrified and mortified. The fires of hell could have swallowed me whole right there and then.
I took off my hat as fast as I can, mumbled an apology, looking around deathly embarrassed from being seen while being admonished. The moment my hat came off, the deacon walked away and could not have heard my hushed apology. I remember feeling really, really stupid for having forgotten. Again.
Still, with the work ethics of a professional photographer ingrained in me, I wasn’t about to get this little incident get in the way of my goal which was to get a picture of the cross. Undeterred, and with hat in hand, I mustered enough courage and willpower to continue walking towards the altar, made the sign of the cross for good measure, and with my body and arms for a tripod, I positioned the iPhone into the angle from where I wanted to take pictures. I managed a few shots, careful to reposition myself in every click to get a slightly different, and hopefully better, composition. Once satisfied, I walked back and made the sign of the cross again at the edge of the altar, maybe even genuflected a bit as a measure of atonement, and walked out as fast as I could without running. (By the way, running inside the church is generally considered disrespectful as well.)
Twice it happened, and I can’t believe it did. Making a mistake once is understandable enough, but twice, for a Catholic-bred boy? It’s almost heretical! I’ve never since made that same mistake again so far, and it would seem that I’ve finally taken the lesson to heart. But, of course, I can’t be too sure.
So, let’s get this straight—inside the church, though nowadays no longer strictly imposed except perhaps on certain occasions, women should cover their heads. And as for men, still strictly imposed to this very day since the apostle Paul promulgated it to the Corinthians, can’t ever leave their hat on.
Note: The images from this post were shot with the iPhone 6 Plus camera, photo file management staged on Apple’s Aperture, black-and-white post-production conversion done on MacPhun’s Tonality Pro. To see more images, view the current photo collection on my official photography website at www.dominiquejames.com. All images are available as print order, as well as licensing for personal, editorial, and commercial use. For inquiries, photo assignments and commissions, email at email@example.com. Thanks!