Bonkers for bonnets: At the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, nothing is too ridiculous to be worn as a hat

The unconventional celebration has been on New Yorkers’ social calendars since the late 1800s

On Easter Sunday, New York City’s Fifth Avenue is transformed into an outdoor art gallery, populated with walking works of art. Participants gather to show off jellybean-covered jackets, bubble-wrap beehives, and towering floral headdresses.

For one day only, cigars become carrots, pit bulls have bunny ears, and anything—baskets, eggs, a papier-mache Easter Island head, skyscrapers, peacocks, spiderwebs, globes, Peeps, butterflies, and more—can be worn as a hat.

Easter bonnets aren’t just for humans—at the Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival, you’ll also see chihuahuas in pearls, pugs in Coachella-worthy flower crowns, and tiny dogs in even tinier bejeweled top hats and feather boas. It’s hard to upstage these furry fashionistas, but every year thousands of people break out their glue guns and scour vintage shops in preparation for the parade.

A dog wearing sunglasses at the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade
Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A dog wearing a top hat at the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Fashionable Fifth Avenue

Since the 1880s, wealthy New Yorkers—exiting Sunday services at one of the many houses of worship along Fifth Avenue—walked to nearby restaurants or shops, showing off their Sunday best in the process. Easter, however, became the preferred day to exhibit the latest spring fashions. Dressmakers and milliners soon caught on and would observe the crowds, taking their sketches to department stores. Cheaper replicas began appearing in stores just a few weeks after the Easter Parade.

Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, 1904.
Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 1904. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For Nora McLoughlin, a writer and marketing director, the Easter Parade is the perfect excuse for her and her husband to showcase their passion for vintage clothing and artistic headwear.

“My husband and I have done the parade for the past five years,” she says. “He got into it because he enjoys making kinetic sculpture hats and having a context to share that joy and silliness with other people. I have always loved vintage clothing, so I didn’t need much encouragement.”

A bubble wrap beehive bonnet.
A bubble wrap beehive bonnet. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Nora McLoughlin and her husband.
Nora McLoughlin and her husband. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Although referred to as such, the gathering is not a “parade” in the traditional sense. There are no floats, no corporate sponsors, no marching bands—spectator and spectacle are thrown together in one big chaotic crowd. While St. Patrick’s Cathedral serves as the anchor point, revelers can be found anywhere along Fifth Avenue from 49th Street up to 57th Street, and beyond.

“It’s just a lovely New York tradition where we all get together to compliment each other’s outfits and be happy that it’s finally spring.”

“It’s rare to find an event like this that’s not about corporate sponsors or anyone selling anything,” says McLoughlin. “It’s just a lovely New York tradition where we all get together to compliment each other’s outfits and be happy that it’s finally spring.”

Bonkers for bonnets

New York has always been a gathering place for artists, fashion designers, and self-proclaimed weirdos—most of whom seize any opportunity to share their creativity with a large, captive audience. Inspired by the event, New Yorker Irving Berlin published the song “Easter Parade” in 1933 and in 1948, it was the inspiration for the Judy Garland and Fred Astaire musical, also called Easter Parade:

In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over  
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade
On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us
And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure

Thankfully, the Easter Parade is no longer just for wealthy parishioners and—even if it sometimes feels as if photographers outnumber participants—everyone is now welcome to join in regardless of faith or artistic ability.

Davey Mitchell, a costume designer and performance artist, has been crafting elaborate costumes for the parade since 2011. He originally transformed himself into “TV Bunny” by adding bunny ear antennas to an old iMac shell. “I try to revise and update it each year,” he says. “People look for the character every year, but I only wear it every two years so I can present new works in between.”  

This year, his ensemble is a tribute to the artist Keith Haring. “The city’s landscape has changed so much since Haring’s passing, I wanted to bring [his art] back to the streets of New York,” Mitchell says.

Easter Island meets Easter bonnet.
Easter Island meets Easter bonnet. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A woman wearing a hat shaped as Earth with letters spelling out "Save me"
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Similar events have been held in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlantic City, Richmond, New Orleans, and Toronto—but people from all over the world still can’t resist the pull of Fifth Avenue. Florent Bidois, a London-based fashion designer, visited New York last year and ended up joining a friend in the parade. He made his dress, customized his blazer, and donned a floral, birdcage headpiece made by a friend.

“Overall I looked like a washed out version of a French flag,” he says, laughing. He had such a good time that he says he intends to return to New York specifically to attend this year’s parade.

“The Easter Parade is just a giant, crazy color walk. It’s completely bonkers and over the top—just our style.”

Sue Kreitzman, a native New Yorker who now lives in London, also experienced her first Easter Parade last year and plans to return this year with friends. “The Easter Parade is just a giant, crazy color walk,” she says. “It’s completely bonkers and over the top—just our style.”

Join the party

Historically, not everyone has been so quick to embrace the silliness and exhibitionism of the event. In 1914, Edwin Markham, a poet and social critic, tried to remind revelers that many of the artificial flowers popular in Easter displays were made in sweatshops. During the Depression, groups of unemployed workers dressed in rags, carrying banners that highlighted the outrageous cost and frivolity of the fashions on display.

But for most people—and their dogs—the event is a time to celebrate spring, showcase their creativity, and spread joy. “It’s one of the few days where you can see smiles on people’s faces all day,” says Mitchell. “NYC is a very difficult place to live with its vast economic and social challenges. [The Easter Parade is] one of those days where you feel proud to be a New Yorker and regardless of your faith or beliefs—it is an open event to all.”

One of the joys of a recurring event is recognizing repeat attendees and their evolving style. Margo Isadora, a New York-based print and women’s wear designer, has attended almost every Easter Parade since 2004 with her mother. “I’ve made golden glue gun lace eggs with chicks inside, birds of a feather bonnets with hundreds of handmade pom poms, sparkly egg carton-based bonnets, and real flower bonnets,” says Isadora. This year, inspired by a rainbow color palette, Isadora and her mom will be in “coordinating tulle bonnets and vibrant crocheted dresses.”

“The Easter Parade is an event like no other in New York—it is truly about bringing people together and celebrating creativity,” she adds.

Mitchell says his headdresses take about two months to create, although the exact amount of hours is hard to calculate. “I take my time and enjoy the process of building them,” he says.

“Every year we take a month or two hunting down the right hat pieces and outfits, and now we see friends on the stroll every year,” says McLoughlin. “I think my favorite part of the parade is that it’s an excuse, as an adult, to share joy and optimism and silliness with a giant pack of strangers.”

Mitchell adds: “Design a hat and join the party!”

If you go

The Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival takes place in New York City on Sunday, April 21. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. along Fifth Avenue from 49th Street to 57th Street.