Easter Parade

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Easter Parade

The parade that takes place on Easter Sunday is not a parade in the traditional sense. Instead the Easter parade consists of ordinary people, dressed in their holiday finery, strolling to and from church or along the main streets of town. The citizens of New York City coined the term "Easter parade" near the end of the nineteenth century as a means of describing this informal fashion show. The 1948 movie, Easter Parade, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, and featuring music by Irving Berlin, publicized this annual event.


Folklorists cannot pinpoint the exact origins of this custom. Nevertheless they point to old European folklore that promoted the idea of wearing new clothes on Easter day. In some places people not only wore the clothing to church, but also sauntered through town in their new gear. On Easter Monday, many central Europeans took part in Emmaus walks in which they donned their holiday clothing once more for a leisurely stroll and picnic in the countryside. The Easter parade, as we know it in this country, may have developed out of all these old European Easter traditions.

New York City's Easter Parade

The most famous American Easter parade takes place in New York City. It began in the mid-nineteenth century and achieved prominence during the 1870s and 1880s. By the mid-nineteenth century many fashionable churches had established themselves along Fifth Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares. On Easter Sunday hordes of people making their way to and from packed services in these churches created a surge in human traffic along Fifth Avenue's broad sidewalks. These churchgoers, decked out in beautiful new clothes in honor of the day, created something of a spectacle. The colorful crowds soon attracted more people, who showed up simply to marvel at the fashionable clothing. By the 1890s sightseers from as far away as Long Island and New Jersey elbowed their way onto Fifth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the fashionable and the wealthy in their Easter finery. In this era, well-dressed women never left home without a hat. A new hat put the finishing touch on the Easter outfit and quickly became an indispensable element of the Easter parade. These fancy head ornaments were also known as Easter bonnets.

Although the Easter parade may have its roots in old European folk customs, retailers and advertisers nurtured its development in the United States. Not long after it became an important event on New York's social calendar, manufacturers and retailers realized that promoting the custom could boost clothing and hat sales significantly. By the 1890s battalions of lavish store window displays and legions of persuasive newspaper advertisements urged the public to regard Easter as an occasion for full and formal regalia. The festival became the most important event of the year in the dry goods industry. Some retailers reported that their financial success or failure hinged on Easter sales.


Shortly after the Easter parade claimed widespread public attention, some Christian leaders began to criticize it for distracting people from the religious celebration and significance of the holiday. Certain of them grumbled that the custom encouraged vanity, materialism, and self-absorbed competitiveness, exactly the opposite of the virtues taught by Jesus and demonstrated in the last days of his life. Others despaired over the fact that the surge in demand for fancy hats at Easter time worsened conditions in sweatshops, many of which employed children. Easter should not become an occasion to worsen the sufferings of others, they argued, especially when such sufferings served only to indulge the whims of the fashionable.

Other social critics used the parade itself to challenge the complacency of the well-to-do and lobby for social change. During the Depression, gangs of unemployed people sauntered up and down New York's Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday afternoon wearing worn trousers, lumberjack coats, ragged shoes, and tumble-down old top hats. Some even marched with signs that read "One Fifth Avenue Gown Equals a Year of Relief." During the 1960s young people opposed to the Vietnam war staged similar protests, handing out flyers and carrying placards that read "While you march down the avenue in your new clothes, the clothing is being burned off the backs of men, women and children in Vietnam."

Christian leaders' concern with the excesses of the Easter parade peaked in 1952, when the lure of free television coverage tempted celebrities and commercial promoters into staging a number of rather tasteless events on Fifth Avenue. Designers hired professional models to parade their clothes and hats in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral. A hair lotion company erected a platform in order that their model, dressed in black tights, could pirouette in full view of a crowd. Hired men wearing unusual, eye-catching costumes paraded with signs and placards advertising various products. Celebrities strolled up and down seeking a slice of camera time to promote their latest project. Church leaders felt that the situation, long troubling, had now gotten out of hand. Before the week was out the Protestant Council of New York City issued an official protest and called on citizens to restore dignity to the city's Easter celebrations. The following year police guarded churches and their immediate surroundings from the antics of publicity seekers. Upon the request of civic leaders and clergy, television networks covering the parade agreed to pay less attention to commercial gimmicks. These measures worked to reduce the more flagrant attempts of promoters and advertisers to take over the Easter parade. Nevertheless, many felt that an essential conflict remained between the values enshrined by the parade and those at the heart of the Easter festival.


Although New York City's Easter parade achieved nationwide fame, similar, lesser-known events also took place in towns and cities across the country. In some places these events evolved into structured contests in which a panel of judges awarded prizes to the best dressed man, woman, boy, and girl. These contests often bestowed a special award to the lady with the prettiest hat.


In the latter decades of the twentieth century, as Americans adopted increasingly informal attitudes towards church attire, and indeed, clothing in general, the New York City Easter parade lost some of its former luster. Nevertheless, curiosity continues to draw New Yorkers and tourists to Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday afternoon to see the contemporary version of this American fashion show. The trend towards increasingly informal dress has also diminished the Easter parade in other parts of the country.

Further Reading

Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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