Vivian Henderson is a devout, churchgoing woman who never sets foot in the Lord's house for Sunday service without a splendid hat seated securely upon her head. And for Easter? It better be top notch.

You see, choosing just the right church hat is not a decision to be taken lightly -- certainly if one has a collection brimming with more than 200 serious, sincere pieces of head-turning devotion, faithfully making a statement for their owner week by week with rarely a repeat appearance in a calendar year.

"I probably have more than that by now. I have an entire hat room in my house," Henderson, of San Leandro, recently admitted after a rousing service at the Greater St. Paul Baptist Church near downtown Oakland. She stood radiant top to toe in pale salmon, her crisp suit a stunner on its own, then capped off with a "ribbon hat" and its daring diagonal brim, silver accents and rhinestones that caught glints from the stained-glass windows.

"I wear hats every day, but more elaborate ones for church. It's tradition. I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where hats were part of the Southern identity. It means femininity, womanhood," she said, adding with a firm tone: "A lady just did not go to church without a hat."

Though styles have become more casual and hats are not always a necessary accessory for many younger women, they're still big in many congregations. In black churches, the tradition dates back to African queens, who wore crowns or elaborate head wraps. Precious bonnets at Easter even bloom for the nonreligious -- to celebrate the promise of spring and the sense of renewal.

Easter bonnets are known to bring joy outside of the religious realm, too. Pat Jocius, of Boulder Creek, has advanced-stage breast cancer and belongs to a cancer support group called Arm-in-Arm in Aptos. In March, the group held a special hat party to cheer themselves after the recent loss of two members.

Topping it off

"I brought my Easter hats from my grandmother's large collection of antique hats, and we had our first annual 'Celebrate Our Life Ladies Holiday Hats and Pearls Tea Party,' " Jocius said.

Hats were lifted to a new level in the 1870s with the introduction of the annual Easter Parade of the social elite along New York's Fifth Avenue, showing off spectacular pieces of headwear with such wild accoutrements as live bird nests, portable flower gardens and even pets.

Irving Berlin sealed the Easter bonnet in popular culture in 1948 with his musical "Easter Parade" and the lyrics: "In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it; You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade."

Highfalutin hats, for church and beyond, are still a hit with the Brits, with many a chic chapeau sported by Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Kate. But in America, they're mere remnants of decades past when women always dressed to the nines.

Tip of the hat

"Now, you're lucky if you get sixes and sevens," joked May Henderson, owner of the Hat Library shop on Broadway in Oakland's Uptown. Though they have the same last name, she's no relation to Vivian other than being best friends and her chief hat-addiction supplier.

Vivian Henderson, left, and May Henderson take part in a church service at the Greater St. Paul Baptist Church on March 17, 2013, in Oakland.
Vivian Henderson, left, and May Henderson take part in a church service at the Greater St. Paul Baptist Church on March 17, 2013, in Oakland. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

"My mother and grandmother did this to me," May Henderson said of her own hat habit, chuckling a low laugh as she adjusted her royal purple topper with metallic lace around the crown in the lobby of Greater St. Paul's, where she's also a member. "The moment I was born, they put a bonnet on my head, and I think I've had one nearly every day since. I can associate events with what hat I was wearing at the time."

May Henderson says the hat business indeed is a labor of love. "It's not exactly a profit-making venture these days," she said. "Easter and Mother's Day are my biggest sellers. The 'fascinators' are very popular right now. Those are little headbands or combs with a little decoration attached. They used to be called cocktail hats, but Americans took on the British term. It's just a little somethin'."

This past Sunday, the sanctuary of Greater St. Paul's was dotted with pastel pinks, greens and yellows as if someone scattered a handful of after-dinner mints -- a sure sign that spring had arrived, with Easter just around the corner. There was a white splash with a bowl-like brim, trimmed with delicate blossoms. A pink Mad Hatter-style job. And Loretta Rush, of Hayward, was aglow in a lipstick-red suit and wide-brimmed hat.

"Oh, I have to wear a hat," she said. "The outfit is not complete without one."

Read Angela Hill's Sunday Give 'Em Hill column, or follow her at Twitter.com/giveemhill.