For many African-American churchgoers, hat shopping is almost a religious experience. Sabbath hats have to be flattering, fabulous, feminine and sprouting a bit of flash such as looped ribbons, flowers, feathers, netting or jewels.
These crowning glories tie together the colors and fabrics of the complete ensemble, bring attention to the face and, hopefully, turn heads at church.
It's the holy and the holy cow! in perfect harmony.
To achieve this "hattitude," many turn to I & M Classy Hats + More, a hat and clothing boutique that recently moved from Drew Street in Clearwater to its new location at 424 West Bay Drive in downtown Largo.
The shop is owned by Isay Gulley, a well-known community leader in Clearwater, and her daughter Michelle Holmes. The two have been an inseparable team in business together for 10 years. They opened the new store in late June, and where they go, their loyal flock follows.
"Our customers tell us we're the only hat boutique like this in Pinellas County," said Holmes, 48. "They told us from the beginning, 'When I go to church I don't want to see three or four ladies sitting there with my hat on,' so we only do one-of-a-kind here."
The shop is not only a resource for women shopping for church hats, but also for Red Hat Society members and people seeking something special for weddings, funerals, Mother's Day, Easter and Kentucky Derby watch parties.
The owners say they wanted to be more centrally located for their Pinellas clientele, but customers also come from Tampa, Brooksville — all over the state.
"We ship everywhere, as far away as Hawaii," said Gulley, 66.
Their store is just under 1,000 square feet — just about the same size as the former one in Clearwater — but the layout allows them to display more merchandise.
"I've been able to add more styles and have picked up some new designers," Gulley said. Customers can also browse and order from a collection of catalogs.
The shop is a favorite hunting ground for Ann Buckner, a certified nursing assistant from Dunedin.
"I come here when I feel the urge to splurge, and I splurge quite often," said Buckner, 55. "There's no place like this; I love it."
The walls are lined with all sorts of hats in a variety of styles and shades including white, black, gold, silver, pastels and delectable chocolates. There's a nice selection of colossal Derby hats, too. "The bigger the better," Gulley said.
They also carry the latest craze for hat fashionistas, the fascinator. For the uninitiated, fascinators are miniature frilly hats or headpieces fastened to the hair with a comb, clip or headband. They have become very popular thanks to the English royals.
Hat prices range from $20 to $240.
Gentlemen's hats include fedoras, straws, berets, pork pies, newsboys, dress, outdoor sports and more.
The shop also sells jewelry, handbags and special occasion dresses in sizes from 4 to 32. For men, there's a selection of leisure suits.
Customers should prepare for pampering.
"We love to play dress-up here," Gulley said. "My daughter has always been Miss Prissy, even as a child."
Her daughter's diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis 12 years ago provided the impetus for the two to open the original store in 2003. The chronic inflammatory disorder affects joints and can lead to fatigue and pain.
"This store gives Michelle a purpose, a reason to get out of the house and yet still have the flexibility she needs," Gulley said.
Sales in their new location have been good, they said, and they are expecting a big jump with fall weddings and the holidays ahead.
Rose Marie Evans, a deaconess from Clearwater, was in the shop looking for a new white communion hat.
"I already have about 100 hats," said Evans, 75. "I have one for every outfit."
She's not the record-holder by any means.
"We have one customer that has over 1,000 hats," Gulley said.
And where does she store them all?
"She has her own hat room."
Terri Reeves can be reached at [email protected]