February 20, 2005
The dozens of queen mums who help guide the 73 local chapters of the Red Hat Society are in full regalia. It is a sight to behold, dressed as they are, way beyond the nines. Their requisite wild red hats and flamboyant purple attire light up a local banquet room like fields of psychedelic poppies. Red hatters are said to attend weddings and even funerals of members dressed thusly. But on this day, they are supposed to be planning an annual picnic. Instead, they are cracking jokes, laughing raucously and playing “show and tell.” Like giddy schoolgirls, they take turns displaying a dizzying array of Red Hat merchandise they received for Christmas from those who know only too well their lust for all things Red Hat. Included in the booty is a bouncing Red Hat lady figurine that says: “Shake what your mama gave you!” Another item says “Put your big girl panties on and deal with it!” These women, all over age 50, are part of an international grassroots organization that some sociologists are calling the second major women’s movement — albeit, without the overt political agenda. The Red Hat Society, which didn’t exist six years ago, now has a million women worldwide in more than 36,000 chapters. Chapters are being organized at a rate of 500 each month, according to society statistics. An estimated 10,000 women in Colorado belong, including as many as 2,000 in Colorado Springs. There are 72 chapters here, including about 10 formed since January. The Red Hat Society growth is amazing, sociologists say, coming at a time when many women’s groups are considered old hat and fading from the social scene. But the Red Hat Society has struck a nerve with women, especially baby boomers refusing to be invisible as they age. In a show of their economic force, they have single-handedly re-energized the nation’s millinery business and caused the creation of cottage industries churning out Red Hat merchandise by the ton. The society is not organized like other traditional women’s groups. Red Hatters don’t typically as a group do volunteer work, oversee community events or work in churches, the arts or other traditional women’s endeavors. Their only cause is to dress up and have fun. But the movement is far more than ladies buying knickknacks and wearing gloves to tea parties. “The wacky colors and the hats and acting silly are just the top layer. It’s much deeper,” says founder Sue Ellen Cooper, exalted queen mother, who presides at international “hatquarters” in Fullerton, Calif. “As older women, we have been ignored. We are saying we are valuable and worth notice and no longer willing to accept the traditional role that society is offering us at this age.” Women older than 50 have been invisible and overlooked in our youth-obsessed culture, agrees professor Abby Ferber, a sociologist and director of women’s studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “Think of the terms that have been used to describe them: spinsters, old maids, matronly. And on TV, about the only time you see a woman over 50 is in a prescription drug commercial,” she notes. The Red Hat Society is successful, Ferber says, because it offers a way for women to promote the reality that beauty is more than being young and skinny. “Through the shared support and experiences of womanhood, they are saying. very effectively, ‘You can’t ignore us any longer,’” Ferber says. On this day at the luncheon, it would be hard to ignore them. The queen mums are showing off an astounding collection: couch throws, knit scarves, a chicken, fish and snowman with red hats, pillows with Red Hat sayings, scads of Red Hat jewelry, red and purple T-shirts and sweaters, even wine glasses etched with red hats. There is no kitchen sink, but one lady reports to the group that she has seen a kitchen-sink drain stopper shaped like a red hat. “As if we needed anything more,” laughs Jo Ann Anderson, who heads up a chapter called the Delightful Dizzy Dames. She has been known to wear a Red Hat-themed poodle skirt. But today, her purple pants suit is fairly sedate, and her hat — decorated with tiara, sequined pin and trailing several yards of purple, red and white tulle — is not the most outlandish among the spangled hatwear. And then there are the accessories. Anderson is wearing Red Hat-patterned socks with her high heels, a tote bag bearing Red Hat motifs, a Red Hat ring, a Red Hat watch, two Red Hat bracelets, a sparkly Queen Mother lapel pin, a Red Hat wallet and key chain. The queen mum has left her special potholders home, including one that says: “The Queen don’t cook.” This demand for all things Red Hat has drawn the attention of the retail world. “Traditionally, women over 50 have been ignored in the marketplace,” notes Lex Higgins, marketing professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “The Red Hat Society is not only healthy for the women, but also healthy for the entrepreneurial spirit of our economy, too.” Women’s hat sales in this country have doubled from $875 million in 1998 to an estimated $1.6 billion last year, according to the Millinery Information Bureau. “Red Hat Society is the best thing that has happened to the hat business since FDR,” says Diane Feen, a Florida fashion consultant for Hat Life, a trade directory. The Red Hat Society was launched in 1998 in California when, on a whim, Sue Ellen Cooper bought a quirky red hat for herself at a thrift store, and then more for friends’ birthdays. With their gifts, she included the poem “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph, which reads, in part: “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me, and I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves . . . and pick flowers in other peoples’ gardens and learn to spit . . .” Cooper and her friends went to tea in their finery and had more fun than they could imagine. Jokingly, they dubbed Cooper “Queen Mother.” Friends told friends across the country about it. Everyone wanted in on the hat act. Cooper, 60, seems as astonished as everyone else that the movement caught on like it has, with much of the growth in the past two years. When it started to snowball, she and another woman held office hours to deal with the questions and mail. Now they have 50 employees to handle logistics. Overhead costs are paid by licensees who manufacture Red Hat items, and the $35 in chapter dues and $18 annual fees for those who want bonus points to shop online at www.redhatsociety.com. “In some way I think it was just meant to be. If I had intentionally set out to start something like this, it would not have worked. It’s a good life lesson,” Cooper says. The group has no club rules because members say they are weary of functioning within tight structures, as they have most of their lives, Cooper says. The bit of organization the chapters must do to set party dates and such is jokingly referred to as “disorganization.” And they don’t do even that work without some goodnatured grumbling about it. Of course, many members do community things; they have jobs, volunteer, raise money for causes. But they differentiate that from Red Hat events, which they call “recess.” Their emphasis on verve is reflected in the chapter names: Hussies with Hatattitude, Ladies of the Purple Cloth, Scarlet O’Hatters, Red Hottie Toddy’s, Purple Mountain Reddish Fetish, ColorREDo Cuties, Red Hat Flashes. There’s even a chapter of nurses in Birmingham, Ala., who call themselves the Red Hat Nightingales. They wear purple and red scrubs with Red Hat motifs in the operating room. Jo Ann Anderson, 56, a retired office manager, recalls how she started the Delightful Dizzy Dames a year ago. A friend in California kept bugging her to start a chapter, even sending her a couple of hats, a purple outfit, a feather boa, a key chain and wallet with Red Hat motifs for inspiration. Anderson had a new neighbor across the street and all they had ever done was wave to each other. “I went across the street, and said, ‘I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, but let’s start a Red Hat chapter.’” They now have 38 members. When they party in full regalia, she notes, men and women alike stop them on the street and say, “Way to go!” Her daughter has started a Pink Hat chapter. There were so many women younger than 50 wanting to get in on the fun that the national headquarters deemed that these “youngsters” everywhere could be “ladies in training.” The Pink Hatters can be members of Red Hat chapters or form their own Pink hat chapters. They wear pink hats and lavender outfits. Most groups have from a dozen to 30 members. But some, like the Purple Pillars, have 200 women, and the Red Hat Dazzlers at Colorado Springs Senior Center has 70 members. The Dazzlers had to close membership and ask would-be members to form offshoot chapters, explains Mendy Putman, center director. Many other chapters have had to do the same thing. On almost any day, you can find groups dining in their favorite tea rooms and cafés, traveling to fashion shows, pajama parties, movies, museums and plays such as “Menopause.” Some go on cruises. One bunch went to London at the invitation of women there and they marched in a parade. This year’s summer convention will be in Las Vegas. Etta McClanahan, 64, a retired administrative assistant, recalls the first time she saw a society at a local restaurant. “I couldn’t resist asking ‘who are you?’” She eventually went to a Red Hat tea. “I didn’t know if I would like it. I was surprised I enjoyed it so much.” She’s now a member of the 200-strong Purple Pillars formed through PILLAR, a local educational institute for retirees. “It’s a fun time in our lives to relax and not worry about things,” she says of her new friendships. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0371 or email@example.com DETAILS Here are some guidelines from national “hatquarters” on how to join a chapter, start a Red Hat Society chapter, or become a “virtual” member online. - Members must be at least 50 years old (Pink Hatters are younger than 50). - Buy a red hat and purple outfit. (Or pink and lavender if a Pink Hatter.) Members attend functions in “full regalia.” There are no bylaws. The chapter and events are what you make them. - Invite as many women as you want into your chapter. Most have about 20 members because any more makes it difficult to obtain reservations. When your chapter membership closes, encourage others to start their own. - Register with the national society so you can participate in official Red Hat events and online shopping sales. A registered chapter pays about $35 a year. - To become a member of a chapter already in existence, go to the society Web site, which lists chapters by ZIP code, and send an e-mail to one near your home. You can visit several to see which you like. Chapter contact information can also be obtained by calling hatquarters. - If there’s no chapter near you or you prefer to be an online-only member, it is $18 a year. See the Web site for details. More information: www.redhatsociety.com or call the society in Fullerton, Calif., 1-714-738-0001.