Elaborate outfits also served as a way to honor God. Women showed respect and reverence by dressing up for church. In earlier times, slaves might wash their one set of clothes; field workers might decorate a straw hat with a ribbon or flower to look more formal. In 1958, the dress code at the predominantly black Bennett College For Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, required all young women to wear hats, gloves and heels to church and whenever they left campus. The college’s president bent the rules only once: when the students protested a Woolworth’s store because their lunch counter wouldn’t serve blacks.
In 2002, Regina Taylor’s off-Broadway production Crowns — based on Cunningham and Marberry’s book by the same name — followed the lives of six Southern African-American women through the hats they wore to church. The play discussed hat etiquette (no hat borrowing), style (you shouldn’t look lost in it), and attitude (you have to have one in order to wear a hat well)