Every Easter Sunday for well over a century, New Yorkers have been strolling along Fifth Avenue dressed in their holiday finery, with a special focus on ladies’ festive hats. Though the ritual has waned somewhat the last couple of decades, the “Easter Parade” may be on the rise again, now with a greater emphasis on creativity. What’s more, men are getting in on the fun.

While the Easter Parade is an American event held in other cities as well, including New Orleans, Kansas City, Lexington, and Asheville, to name a few, most of these take place on Saturday instead of Sunday, and New York undoubtedly most vividly symbolizes the event. The parade’s origins, however, go as far back as The Dark Ages when Christians in Eastern Europe would gather at a designated spot before Easter church services, then walk in solemn procession to church, and sometimes afterwards as well, always in their finest attire as a show of respect. The custom of specifically wearing new clothes was likely tied to the symbolism of new life that Easter represents. A 15th-century proverb stated that unless everything worn on Easter was entirely new, the wearer would not have good luck the remainder of the year.

“At Easter let your clothes be new,
Or else be sure you will it rue.”

Our more familiar version of the parade started relatively spontaneously in the 1870s when New York’s greatest churches began being decorated with highly ornamental displays of flowers for Easter. Congregations were soon following suit, notably the ladies. One 1873 newspaper reporting on Easter service said, "More than half the congregation were ladies, who displayed all the gorgeous and marvelous articles of dress… thus vied in effect and magnificence with the pleasant and tasteful array of flowers….” By the 1880s, the spectacle grew into an after-church event as well. The upper class would gather after services and stroll from church to church to see the flower displays while showing off their fashionable clothes. Having become the wealthiest city in the nation, it followed suit that New York had the grandest show of finery, and its focal point was along the grand churches of Fifth Avenue. Poorer and middle-class people would come to see what the fashionable were wearing. By 1900, Easter had become as important in clothes retailing as Christmas is today.

The “parade” increased in popularity right into the mid-20th century. In 1933, Irving Berlin memorialized the event with his hit song “Easter Parade.” The song, in turn, inspired the 1948 film by the same name, starring song and dance legends Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. (You can see the number performed at the end of the article.) In those years right after World War 2, the parade was drawing up to a million people. Women’s hats or “Easter bonnets,” as they became known, were the highlight of the event, but well-dressed men also wore their best hats for the occasion right up into the 1950s. Attendance, however, started declining, and in the last decade New York’s Easter parade was drawing only around 30,000 people.

Today, the event has freed itself from much of its religious and class significance, and become more of a fun happening and venue for creative expression, often times imaginatively outlandish. This new, more expressive spirit is drawing a different kind of crowd, including New Yorkers and visitors of all ages, with more men, and even pets participating in the festive parading of costumes and hats. Of course, there are those who remain committed to making a flamboyant fashion statement. This Sunday, April 5, everyone has the opportunity to join in on the parade – with or without a bonnet. The Easter Parade and Easter Bonn

Here’s the Hollywood version of what the New York Easter Parade was like in its peak days: