| The Red Hat Society |
By Sue Ellen Cooper
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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Birth of a Notion
People ask how I feel about getting old. I tell them I
have the same question. I'm learning as I go.
One evening, in the fall of 1997, my husband and I, both Californians, were visiting old friends who had moved to Tucson, Arizona. On this Friday night, in the "artsy" part of town, the shops were open, brightly lighted, and the street was full of strolling window-shoppers and diners. Among the shops was a thrift shop, the type of place that has always attracted me. You never know what treasure you might find in such a store, you know-so much more exciting than "ordinary" shops. What does it say about me, that I would rather hunt for the prize than have it presented to me on a platter? Probably that I possess that notorious feminine gene for shopping.
There it was. Such a beautiful, brilliant color! Such a jaunty, devil-may-care attitude! Such a serendipitous find!
I didn't need it.
I had nowhere to wear it.
There was no good reason to buy it. This requirement that everything one does must be done for a "good reason" was ingrained in me from my childhood. One must have a good reason for everything one does, don't you know? I might look silly in it. (I guess there are worse things than looking silly.)
People might think I was weird when they saw me in it. It would be an unnecessary expenditure. Surely that eight dollars could be put to better use. Waste not, want not! It would have to be squashed in my suitcase to get it home. Women don't wear hats anymore. I would be out of style.
Obviously, I thought, I should turn around, walk out of this thrift shop, and put that hat out of my mind. One must not indulge in flights of fancy. Who knows where that could lead? I might get totally out of control, and then, who knows what I might do? On the other hand. . .
I was feeling lighthearted. The little girl inside of me, who had barely managed to survive, isolated in the closet, so to speak, for years, was begging me to buy it. (Usually, I managed to drown out her pleas.)
It might be justifiable to give myself just this one teensy-weensy treat.
It probably wouldn't matter to anyone else one way or another. Generally speaking, people are concerned primarily with themselves. It was unlikely they would be interested in my finances or apparel.
I could wear it "just for tonight." If it turned out to be a terrible mistake, I could always quietly dispose of the hat.
I found myself standing in front of the cash register, digging into my wallet. Before I knew it, that bright red fedora was perched on my head, dipping daringly below one eyebrow. As far as I know, I caused no one a moment's pause. The sky did not fall. The only real result was that I experienced some moments of genuine pleasure and managed to surprise myself a bit. (Maybe I am a little less dull than I thought.)
Fast-forward to a couple of months later....
My dear friend Linda Murphy was turning fifty-five, and I wanted to give her an imaginative gift. She isn't the sort of person who particularly cares for trinkets. And I do enjoy a challenge. I began to contemplate what sort of gift I could give her. Fifty-five, while not the beginning of a new decade, is rather a milestone birthday. How could I best communicate the occasion? I wondered.
Linda had made a couple of small jokes about getting old, and that had reminded me of the Jenny Joseph poem, and its refreshing, liberating attitude toward aging. And that reminded me of my red fedora, languishing in my closet. Now, I certainly do not consider fifty-five "old," but I knew that there were many in our society who probably did. I knew that Linda and I did not consider ourselves anywhere near old, but then, the poem refers to practicing for the day when one does become old. I decided it would be appropriate for us to begin practicing, as a joke between us. I would locate a copy of the poem and frame it. I would buy her a vintage red hat and present her with both items. She could hang the poem on her wall and suspend the hat on a hook next to it, creating a vignette that might make her smile, especially if it was in her bedroom, where she would see it every day when she got up. I didn't want to give her the hat that I already had, but, rather, to find one especially for her. It wasn't hard to find a cute red bowler at a local antique shop. Though similar to my original one, it seemed a bit more decorous, and a bit more Linda.
The gift was a hit! Our mutual friends enjoyed it, too. So the following December, when another friend, Carol Sibley, was turning fifty, I couldn't resist giving her a similar gift. This time, my search had yielded a real treasure, a vintage red hat embellished with a bunch of shiny artificial cherries and a mysterious black veil! It gave Carol a smile, and entertained the other party guests, as well.
After that, I quickly discovered that this had now become the gift that was expected of me, at least within our circle of longtime friends. I began to look for red hats whenever I was in antique or thrift shops, and I found several. One of them even had a red brim with a purple crown! I put that aside for my youngest friend, Marsha Harline, in anticipation of her fiftieth birthday. I had decided that reaching the age of fifty should be treated as a positive, momentous milestone, instead of the beginning of the end. The thrill of the hunt reinforced my efforts. Very soon, there were several of us with red hats.
It occurred to me that there might be some kind of magic in the words of that poem. Perhaps we should all find something purple to wear and go out in public in our purple and red, I thought. I made a few calls and convinced the others to participate in an outing. Purple wasn't a popular color in 1998, so this necessitated visits to resale shops to find castoffs from an earlier era, when purple had been more desirable.
In April 1998, we went to a tearoom within the Spring Field Banquet Center, located a few blocks from my house. I persuaded my husband to stop by with a camera to record this event. We thought we looked quite fetching in our regalia, sitting around the tea table. He thought we looked hilarious! He laughed so hard that he had trouble steadying the camera long enough to snap the shutter. For some reason, he thought we made quite a sight. Interestingly, there was not another soul in the tearoom that day, so we couldn't elicit any attention from anyone other than our waitress, who didn't raise an eyebrow.
Well, ladies, something magical happened that afternoon. Whether it was the outfits, the aura of playing dress-up, or just our own amusement at our perceived daring, I don't know. What I do know is that we had more fun together than we had had in years. Within a few minutes, we knew that we wanted to do this again. Someone (we can't remember who) told me that I was a queen for thinking this whole thing up. I quickly seized upon that notion, embracing the idea wholeheartedly, and declared myself "Queen Mother." What woman hasn't always wanted to be a queen? Well, if I was going to have a title, everyone else should get to have one. Linda was proclaimed "Vice Mother" (we weren't sure what vice she would be the mother of, but we were sure the title would prove to be appropriate in some way), and Cheryl "Hysterian," as she said she would keep a scrapbook for us. We dubbed ourselves the "Red Hat Society" right then and there.
By the time of our next outing, we had added several more fun-loving friends to our little nucleus, including an "Antiparliamentarian" (to make sure that we didn't make any rules) and a "Sergeant in Gloves," who would enforce ladylike behavior, if we could ever determine exactly what that might be.
Linda told a friend of hers, Nancy Manning, who lived in Florida, about our group. Nancy immediately gathered several of her close friends and formed another Red Hat conclave. We thought it was very cool to have a sister chapter all the way across the country.
Little did we know what would follow a bit later on. Linda also mentioned our group to the daughter of an old friend, Eileen Cannon Paulin, who was the editor of Romantic Homes magazine. This led to our being featured in the July 2000 issue. They also featured our sister group in Homosassa, Florida- the Steel Magnolias. We were all thrilled to see ourselves in a four-page spread entitled "Growing Old Playfully." Immediately, I began to receive E-mails from Romantic Homes readers, saying, "I loved reading about your group! How can my friends and I play, too?" I answered each one of these like-minded women, explaining how easy it would be for them to pattern new groups after ours. Before I could answer anyone, however, I had to learn to use my husband's computer-at least enough to send and receive E-mail. Technophobe that I am, I considered this a daunting requirement. I have spent my whole life in fear of anything that comes with an instruction manual. With my apologies to Dr. Seuss for using Green Eggs and Ham as my inspiration, here is a summary of my attitude at that time:
The Monster on the Desk
I will not learn to use that thing.
I won't admit that it is king.
I will not force myself to learn
And from my pen and paper turn.
I do not like computers, sir!
I do not like them, I aver!
I will not use them on a table.
I'm telling you, I am not able!
I will not deign to press those keys,
Not even if you pay me fees!
I do not want to use that thing,
Not even for a diamond ring!
I'd really rather have a spinal.
And this decision must be final!
Well, I was wrong. I had to learn a few computer fundamentals, and this machine was not the demon I had imagined it to be. In fact, it was a miracle of sorts. The problem now was that my husband and I were a one-computer couple, and I began to use it a lot, essentially crowding him out of his business-related activities. So we bought a computer for me (bright red, of course) and a garage-sale school desk to put it on.
The following December, the Orange County Register, our local newspaper, featured the founding chapter of the Red Hat Society on the front page of its "Accent" section. While this was exciting in itself, what was really exciting was the pickup of the article by the major wire services! Now the trickle of E-mails turned into a torrent! Publicity, which we had never sought, continued to propel the Red Hat Society forward at a speed that seemed to accelerate almost daily. In June 2001, a few hundred of us red-hatted Southern Californians took the train to San Juan Capistrano for a day of shopping, lunching, and getting to know one another. Florence Henderson, Mrs. Brady herself, was sent, along with a camera crew, from the Today show to cover the event. Over the course of several hours, we taught her how to be a Red Hatter, both in dress and attitude. The segment was aired in September of 2001, and it stimulated our growth even more than we had thought possible.
I am often asked if I was surprised by the incredible growth of our group. Perhaps bewildered would be a better word for my initial emotion. I couldn't help but think of the scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest begins running for no particular reason. A few people start to jog along behind him, and then a few more-and then a huge crowd! I felt as puzzled as Forrest did. Where were we all going? Were all these women counting on me to lead them somewhere? If so, where was I taking them?
With all this attention, I rented a tiny office outside of my home, as I was pushing my husband right out of his study with my boxes and files. July 2001 found me and my first employee, Carol Reekstin (immediately nicknamed "Lady Lavender"), working several hours per day answering E-mails, mailing charters, et cetera. It wasn't long before we had two more part-time helpers-my sister Jane Farrington (aka "PrinSis"), and Susan Meyer ("Duchess of Violet"). We expanded our office space and equipment. The challenge by then was just to keep up with the Red Hat Society as it grew; and that remains our challenge today!
In April 2002, we staged our first national convention, gathering over four hundred Red Hatters from all over the country in Chicago for three days of carefully orchestrated mayhem. We called our event Paint the Town Red, and we sure did! We had speakers, a city tour, a banquet, a talent show, and a pajama breakfast. And we had something we had never expected-one of the best times of our collective life! Attendees vowed not only to return the next year but to bring their friends with them, so they wouldn't miss out, a second time, on an incredibly special experience.
The following spring, in May 2003, a large number of those women did come to our second national convention, in Nashville, Tennessee, and they did bring their friends. This time, we were two thousand strong. Because Nashville is known as "Music City," we chose the name Hats Off to Harmony for this convention. We had about five times as much fun as the year before, probably because there were five times as many Red Hatters there to show us how.
The Red Hat Society is spreading like a wildfire through dry grass! Not only have multiple chapters sprung up in every state; it has gained significant ground in Canada, and has begun appearing in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium, to name just a few. Now that it has become something of an international phenomenon, virtually every reporter I have spoken to has asked me to explain its appeal. What are the reasons for the size and speed of the response? Why does it appeal to such diverse groups of women, people from every conceivable walk of life? When I began to search for the answers to these questions, I discovered, to my surprise, myriad reasons for this response. And, as usual, I found the answers only in retrospect. As I have said, I had not set out to form anything beyond a small group of friends. How in the world had that first simple tea party touched off such a movement?
It seems to me, our primary appeal is our determination to find the joy in life, to grasp the fun there is to be had at this age-fifty and beyond. We have been wives, mothers, and, often, career women. We are now in a different place in our lives. Our children are mostly gone from our homes. We may (or may not) be retired from the workforce. We have survived the busiest, most hectic years and have a little more discretionary time. I don't know about you, but when my children were young, I found the effort of making time for myself akin to trying to stir a hole in a pan of syrup. Each of us knows that she probably has less life left than she has already experienced. Time is even more precious than before. None of us wants to squander any of it. But we have an evolved idea of what "squandering" time means.
We are more likely to see real value in some of the things that we might previously have seen as somewhat frivolous-such as joy, play, perhaps a little bit of self-indulgence. A woman has time to ask herself questions: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Whom do I want to spend that time with? It's kind of like having a limited amount of money to spend in a department store. Whereas we might once have spent all of our money on staples, we are now a little more likely to be found in the toy department-buying toys for ourselves! Women who are discovering this form of liberation are finding that there is even more fun to be found in play when that play is shared with other women. Obviously, we can get together with friends anytime. But how about friends wearing red hats and purple clothing? That adds a new element. As I have said, the red and purple, and the clubbiness that it represents to all of us, seems to inject something magical into any get-together. People stare. People wave.
We feel a little bit like celebrities, and we get a little high on that! We middle-aged women have gotten used to going unnoticed, to being invisible. "Aging is a double-edged sword," says Renae Bredin, an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton. "You do have much more freedom to do what you want-because no one is watching. Older women are invisible in our culture." This certainly validates what Carolyn Heilbrun, a retired Columbia University professor, has said. She jokes that she could burglarize any New York City apartment and not get caught. "If you aren't young and sexy, nobody sees you. You do become invisible. It's annoying at first. But it also gives you great freedom."
Well, I have a question: How do you ignore anywhere from ten to fifty women decked out in red and purple and sporting such accessories as red feather boas and rhinestone pins that spell out "QUEEN"?
Answer: You don't!
Wearing the bright, sometimes outrageous getups that some of us have begun to accumulate provides an opportunity for individualism and the expression of playful spirits. The wearing of the Red Hat Society regalia reminds us a lot of playing dress-up as children.
"It's never too late to have a happy childhood."
We loved doing that then, and we still love it. How fun is a fluffy red-feathered fan, or a pair of purple fishnet hose? And it is a lot easier to act silly when you are dressed silly!
This talk of silliness might sound, well, silly. But silliness is a very important part of the Red Hat Society. Just because we are no longer little girls does not mean that we are entirely grown-up! Those little girls hiding inside these mature bodies just love a chance to get out and play once in a while! So now, in accordance with the Red Hat Society's playful spirit, we have all decided that we are now queens, princesses, ladies, duchesses, et cetera. Expressing our importance as royalty (self-proclaimed though that royalty might be) is an element of the silliness that we all enjoy heartily. I had an early E-mail from one kindred spirit who said that her household consists of a wonderful husband and two teenage sons who need to be reminded, from time to time, that she is the queen of their house. So she keeps a tiara on her bedside table and never hesitates to put it on, lest they forget who she is.
It is not always easy to accumulate new friends as we get older. Some of us tend to put ourselves out there less often and just cling to the long-established friends and routines that we have known for years. But there can be great stimulation in adding new friends to your life and planning imaginative adventures with them. As any particular chapter adds friends of friends, many women get the opportunity to expand their own roster of good friends, whether they are newly discovered kindred spirits or old friends of other old friends. The Red Hat Society provides opportunities to meet new women, not only within one's own chapter but at area-wide and even nationwide events. The interplay and sharing among women who were formerly strangers can be very stimulating and lead to brand-new interests and explorations. I have heard it said that travel is broadening. So is making new friends. Our circle of friends and interests does not need to shrink as we get older; it can expand!
Spending regular time with your chapter members often leads to deeper ties, a feeling of sisterhood. We find that we have many life experiences in common, even though we have gone through them independently. This leads to mutual warmth and, oftentimes, to the development of close bonds. Then, as we continue through life, sharing with our new friends, we discover that we have developed a whole new support system of women who have come to genuinely care about one another. When the inevitable difficult times find one of us, she has a network of others to help her through them.
Having said all of this, I must now mention the attribute of the Red Hat Society that is cited first and foremost by Red Hatters themselves when questioned about their original attraction to the Red Hat Society: We have no rules! We have gotten used to functioning in every area of our lives within set structures, and we are weary of it. We established ourselves as a "disorganization," and as far as we possibly can, we are staying a disorganization. We don't want to fulfill the expectations of anyone or any institution. We want to fulfill some long-ignored needs of our own. We want to be free!
To sum up, the Red Hat Society fulfills these needs for its members:
The need to play and enjoy the whimsical aspects of life
The desire to dress up and find the "lost" little girl inside each of us
The need for connection and communication with others who are at the same stage of life
An appreciation for humor and the "sweetness" to be found in life
The stimulation experienced by discovering the plethora of possibilities remaining in our lives
Visibility as a relevant and active segment of society
The fulfillment of the deep need that women have for fellowship with other women who have been through "the wars." We are through with competition. We need one another and are more than ready to admit it.
That is quite a lofty statement of attributes, isn't it? I wish that I could say that I sat down one day and developed a plan for this wonderful disorganization, but many of these benefits developed and revealed themselves only gradually. Now that they are clear, thanks to all of the wonderful Red Hatters who have helped me to clarify who we are and what we do, I have found a dream of my own. It is my hope that the Red Hat Society can promote and spread a countercultural message about women, and revolutionize the view of feminine aging in our society.
We are playing a game with room for an unlimited number of players. This game has no rules, no jobs, no responsibilities, and no penalties. You don't have to be brilliant, talented, or outstanding in any way to play. You just have to enjoy being with other women, playing dress-up, doing "girl things," and deepening your laugh lines. You have to practice lightening up once in a while, and let yourself learn how to find joy in the moment. You don't have to do it alone, though. We have our red-gloved hands extended. Grab hold! And use your free hand to slap a red hat on your head!
Excerpted from The Red Hat Society , by Sue Ellen Cooper . Copyright (c) 2004 Red Hat Society, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top