The sanctuary of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto was filled with silk and pearls, voile and beads, frilly skirts and tights, suits and carnation boutonnieres and matching mothers and babies. But what declared this Easter Sunday was the field of sequined, bowed and feathered hats, each crowning elegant color-coordinated suit dresses.

Among them, Bobbie Hutchison, 80, of Mountain View, was bedecked in a pink embroidered suit with matching embroidered brimmed hat, one of the more than 100 hats she owns.

"It's a down-South kind of thing," said her daughter, Shirl Ceasar, 60, who was hatless. "They will not be caught in church without a hat."

For centuries, hats have been an essential part of church-going. Even after larger society diminished hats to mainly ball caps and visors, the tradition of fine hats, known as crowns in the African-American community, has been fiercely maintained among many who grew up in the South.

The parade of hats in churches on Sunday -- the day Christians celebrate as the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- harkened back to the time when Easter also announced the arrival of spring fashions.

Hats for every season

Along with the elegance seems to be a commandment to deflect compliments.

"I bought the suit by accident six years ago when I took my 94-year-old friend shopping," said Gracie Harris, 79, of East Palo Alto, about her orange-sequined suit. She later won the matching hat in a drawing at a senior center.

Willia Sue Cooper, 88, of Palo Alto, owns hats for every season. About Sunday's lavender hat which matched her lavender outfit, she said, "When at church, you give your best to the master."

The hats come from all over -- local and far-off milliners, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, friends and especially, mothers.

"I just put it together," said Lurlean Stevens Fuller, 95, of East Palo Alto, about her straw hat with a silk taffeta rose, matching her toffee-colored suit. "It's nothing when you know how to do it."

Fuller learned hat-making from her mother, and sold hats while also running a beauty shop in New Orleans. How many hats does she have now?

"Lord, lord," she sang out softly, explaining it is difficult to count because she loves to take some apart and remake them into something different, as occasions demand.

As Margaret Wiley, 78, a fellow parishioner at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto, said, "you can't have too many shoes and you can't have too many hats."

For herself, "no way is my closet big enough for my hats," which overflow into four moving boxes located in various parts of her Mountain View apartment.

"If we were in New York City or Chicago," she noted, "we could walk or ride in the Easter parade."

Maintaining tradition

No longer is Easter the occasion to show off a once-a-year acquisition of a spring dress.

"I dug deep into the back of my closet and found this suit," said Beverly Green, of San Jose, after service at Antioch Baptist Church in San Jose, noting the color was perfect for Easter.

Dorothy Hines, 67, of San Jose, added a coral-tinged silk flower, in a nod to this year's "in" color, to her straw hat, matching her coral outfit set off by a white scalloped jacket. Even though head wear in church changed from mandatory to optional several decades ago, she still wears hats.

For many, it's because of those old admonitions. "My mother told me to wear hats," said Ruth Wilson, of San Jose, who also tells her daughter to wear hats.

Or it may be reverse. Connie Newman's children gave her a pastel green hat last Mother's Day. So she found something green -- immaculately matched in style and color, of course -- to wear with it. "They know I like hats," said Newman, 69, of San Jose.

And while hat-wearing may be vanishing with the older generation, some younger folks maintain the tradition. Cassandra Verges, 31, of San Jose, wore a simple beige straw hat she bought five years ago to attend a tea with her late grandmother.

So in her honor, and for Easter, she wore the same hat, complementing her multi-colored dress.

"A good hat," she said, "makes all the difference."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.