By Carol Band
Rapidly Growing Phenomenon Offers Mature Women Carefree Fun and Friendship
You’ve probably seen them in restaurants, at resorts or marching in your hometown parade – grown women decked in outlandish attire, laughing, being outrageous and having a ball. Maybe you’ve wondered if, with their red hats and purple clothing, they are part of an elite club, a secret sorority or a wild girl gang. Ask them and they will tell you that they are a little of each. They are The Red Hat Society, a self-described “disorganized organization” of women who are celebrating life after age 50, and their numbers are growing by more than 5,000 a week.
When Red Hat Society founder Sue Ellen Cooper, now affectionately known as the Exalted Queen Mother, gave into a moment of madness and bought a red hat in a consignment shop in 1997, she had no idea that it would kick off an international movement.
“I bought my first hat on a whim. It was something that was totally unlike me,” she recalls.
Inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning,” which begins “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat,” Cooper began giving friends a red hat and a framed copy of the poem as a 50th birthday present. Then one afternoon, she and her friends got together and wore their red hats and purple outfits to lunch. That was in 1998. The local news sent a photographer and ran a story. The national wire services picked it up and The Red Hat Society became a full-blown phenomena.
Fun and Friendship
The appeal of The Red Hat Society can be summed up in two words, fun and friendship, Cooper says. “We’ve raised our children, worked for decades, been wives and mothers and had careers. The Red Hat Society gives us a recess from adulthood. We can dress up in feather boas, play the kazoo and have a good laugh.”
And the women find that having fun is even better when there are others to share the good times. A supportive group can make it easier to shed the outer adult and embrace the inner imp.
“I was bored,” explains Janet Donohue, founder of a Red Hat chapter in Denver known as the Colorado Sizzlers. “I called a friend who was a Red Hat member in Dallas and she talked about how much fun they were having. When I looked into joining a local chapter, they were all filled. So I started my own.”
In fact, the Colorado Sizzlers filled up fast. “We have 32 members,” Donohue says. “I don’t want it to get any larger because it’s hard to make restaurant reservations with really big groups.”
Women who join these chapters often start off as strangers. What bonds them is their age, their common experiences and their desire to have a little fun and be just a little zany.
Women in middle age often go unnoticed. “If you don’t look like Britney Spears, no one pays attention to you,” says one Denver Red Hatter. “But if there’s 20 of you in hats and purple dresses you get a lot of attention!”
Barbara Hardwick, 50, founder of Colorado’s Red Hatters and That’s What Matters chapter, agrees. “Our group went to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. It was three hours of fun. We always turn heads,” she says. “Men love women in hats and women in red hats are even better!”
But the Red Hats aren’t just ladies who lunch. One group in San Francisco rented a fire truck and toured the city blowing bubbles, another group took a cruise to Hawaii and, in Florida, there’s even a nudist chapter of Red Hatters.
Serious About One Thing …
As diverse as these chapters are, a common spirit of silliness pervades every gathering of The Red Hat Society. These ladies don’t take themselves seriously. They are only serious about having fun. Dressing in the signature red hats and purple outfits is the only rule. Chapter founders are encouraged to embrace lofty titles like Queen Mother and Duchess of Disorganization. Feather boas are optional, kazoos are welcome and garish jewelry is de rigueur. There are no dues, no regular meetings and no required attendance.
“My group went to The Lodge, a casino in Black Hawk,” says Donohue. “I told the ladies who don’t approve of gambling that they didn’t have to come. We had about 30 of us. It was quite a sight to see all the red hats around the slot machines.”
More than just having fun and forging friendships, The Red Hat Society provides members with support and a chance to shed the stress of everyday life.
“At a time in life when your social circle might be shrinking, The Red Hat Society is a way to reach out and to connect,” Cooper explains. The Red Hat Society might even revolutionize the way we view aging, she adds. Some might say it already has.
Women in their 30s and 40s are looking forward to becoming Red Hats. Although the organization maintains that you must be 50 to join, accommodations have been made for younger women to participate in the fun. Pink hats and pale lavender garb mark underage participants who must save the wearing of the red and purple until their 50th birthday when they participate in a “Reduation” ceremony and may don the official colors.
“I couldn’t wait to turn 50 and become a member,” Hardwick recalls. “I had my 50th birthday in May and in June I founded a chapter here in Aurora. In just three months, our chapter grew from two of us to 22, with six on the waiting list.” The group banded together with other local chapters and marched in the annual Gateway to the Rockies parade. “We even won two trophies!” she adds.
>Keeping Up with the Times, Too
The Red Hat Society isn’t afraid of new experiences or of new technology. In fact, according to a recent study, women over the age of 55 are adopting the Internet faster than any other group.
Maybe part of the credit for that statistic should go to The Red Hat Society. The group is practically run on the ’Net. New members can shop for fashion accessories, chat online, register for local chapters and sign up for trips all on The Red Hat Society Web site.
Some members even register for more than one chapter. “I know women who belong to three different chapters,” says Barbara Beesom, 63, of Colorado Springs. “They like to keep busy.”
Beesom started a new chapter just three months ago. So far, the Scarlett O’Hatters have toured a castle, danced on stage at Menopause the musical and tried their luck at the Cripple Creek casinos.
“I’ve acted old long enough,” Beesom says. “Between my husband and I, we raised five kids. Now, it’s time for some fun.”
Her husband Bill, age 59, approves. “Well, it’s wonderful for mature women to get out and kick up their heels. They deserve it,” he says. Although some of us guys have threatened to start our own supper club, because when the Red Hats meet, our cooks are gone.”
The grown children of Red Hatters are also supportive of their mothers’ new wardrobe and full social calendars.
“They love to hear what my group has done and where we’ve gone,” says Joanne Anderson of the Delightfully Dizzy Dames chapter in Colorado Springs. “It makes them feel good to know that I am active and out with friends.”
Members use their gatherings as a time to forget about the serious side of life and simply have fun. “No one is allowed to complain about physical ailments, or husbands or children or anything,” Anderson says. “We laugh and forget about everything else.”
Here’s to Your Health
If laughter is the best medicine, then it’s not surprising that joining The Red Hat Society sometimes comes in the form of doctor’s orders.
“One woman called me and said that after her husband died, she was depressed and began seeing a psychiatrist,” Donohue recalls. “Her therapist recommended that she join a chapter of the Red Hats to give her a new lease on life, a new circle of friends and support. She did, and now she’s a changed person.”
Women embrace the Red Hat Society with almost a religious fervor. In fact, you might call Sue Ellen Cooper’s best-selling book The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty, the group’s bible.
“We bring the book with us to all of our meetings,” says Anderson. “We use it like a yearbook and everyone signs it.”
Cooper is hard at work on a second Red Hat Society book filled with more inspirational stories from the growing ranks of Red Hatters spread across the country and now in 32 other nations.
With a little luck, we’ll all get older. The Red Hat Society is about making that journey something to anticipate. With friends, some outrageous outfits and the ability to laugh at yourself, the Red Hat Society is out to prove that the fun really does begin at 50.
The Red Hat Society – www.redhatsociety.org; (national Hatquarters in Southern Calif.) – Provides history, local chapter information, message boards, merchandise and more.
The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty, by Sue Ellen Cooper, Warner Books, 2004. The best-selling “bible” of the Red Hatter phenomenon.