If you are out on the town one day — anywhere from Tokyo to Tijuana — and you suddenly spot a group of animated, middle-aged women all wearing red hats and purple dresses, don’t be puzzled. Smile! You might anyway, because it is an oddly heartwarming spectacle when a chapter of the global sisterhood known as the Red Hat Society goes out in public. Oh, and it’s all right to gawk: Ladies in red hats are clearly not averse to attention.
The seed of this eccentric organization — which actually calls itself a “disorganization,” since it has no rules or bylaws — was sown in California in 1997, when a woman named Sue Ellen Cooper gave a friend who was turning 55 two gifts: a copy of the poem “Warning,” by the British writer Jenny Joseph, and a bright red vintage fedora.
Why a red fedora? Because the poem, a wryly welcoming nod to looming old age, begins this way:
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
It goes on to list some of the other silly things an old woman can do if she feels like it (wear terrible shirts, grow fat, pick flowers in other people’s gardens, hoard things in boxes), comparing them favorably with such dull duties of middle age as not swearing in the street, reading the newspaper and setting a good example for the children.
It ends on a bright note, with the poet wondering whether she should “practice a little now,” while she is still middle-aged:
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.
According to its Web site, the Red Hat Society got its formal start in 1998 when Ms. Cooper and five friends met one day for afternoon tea, donning purple clothing and red hats in the spirit of the poem. A scant eight years later, the group’s “hatquarters” are still in California, but it boasts more than 90,000 members in 31 countries. It has even spread as far as Japan, which is home to the Kari Ken branch in Tokyo and the Happy Red Hatters of Fukuoka.
Those are impressive numbers for a group whose standard response to the question “What do you do?” is “Nothing.” That answer is not quite true, of course. The society sponsors events as small as luncheons and as large as international conventions and runs an online store and a travel service. Even though their sole aim is to “have fun” practicing for old age, members do plenty.
It’s not quite true about the lack of rules, either, because there are two binding guidelines: Only a woman of 50 or over can be a Red Hatter, and she must attend society functions in full red-and-purple regalia. Ladies under 50 can join, but they are known as Pink Hatters and are restricted to pink headgear and lavender outfits until they qualify for “Reduation.” (Also a prerequisite: a fondness for ghastly puns.)
Obviously, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, although the society does point out that it draws from all demographics: “working women, grandmothers, retirees, golfers, attorneys, teachers, as well as women who are widowed, married and single.” Many, if not most, women are too reserved, too skeptical or just plain too tired to join anything, let alone a group with a dress code.
Even Ms. Joseph, the poet who inadvertently triggered the whole thing, seems to have reservations about it. She doesn’t allow the society to reprint “Warning,” perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the irony of her ode to independence having spawned such an army of conformists (as well as concerned that the army might start making money off it).
One can imagine Ms. Joseph explaining: “It’s not about wearing purple as such, Ladies. It’s about feeling free to wear whatever you want.” She might also wonder what would happen to a woman who showed up for a society tea in an orange hat and a green dress? Would she be vilified? Or would they make her the new Exalted Queen Mother?
As easy as it is to make fun of the Red Hat Society, however, it is clearly a fascinating social phenomenon with an astonishingly broad appeal. What vein does it tap into? The question is of clear relevance in graying societies such as Japan, with its growing legions of older women. At the very least, the society’s success suggests a hunger for social connections beyond the usual duty-bound treadmills of family and workplace.
Now what can some genius come up with for middle-aged men?
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