|The Red-Hat Lovers
By Cathy Goodwin
Weekday lunchtime at The Pink Store in Palomas, they're graciously posing for photos as they explain, "We're the Red Hat Society. We're about growing older and having fun."
Inside Silver City's A La Mode boutique, they're shopping for official Red Hat regalia—not just hats and dresses, but also bright red feather boas, saucy pins and contemporary pantsuits.
The Red Hat Society (RHS) was founded seven years ago when Sue Ellen Cooper impulsively bought a red fedora in a Tucson thrift shop. Shortly afterward, she came across Jenny Joseph's poem, "Warning." The author promises to celebrate growing old by defying convention: I'll wear a red hat that clashes with my purple dress and doesn't look good on me. I'll spend my money the way I want. And, the poem concludes, we'd better start practicing now.
According to the Red Hat Society Web site, Cooper gave a vintage red hat with a copy of the poem to her friend Linda Murphy—and then repeated the gift to several other friends. Soon they realized they had founded an "anti-organization," the Red Hat Society. Full membership is limited to women age 50 or older. Younger women may affiliate; they wear pink hats and lavender dresses until they celebrate—wildly—their 50th birthday.
Today RHS boasts 850,00 members in 25 countries—but there are no meetings and no by-laws. Each chapter's Queen Mother coordinates events, and a "Hysterian" maintains a scrapbook of photos. Four hundred members attended the society's first national convention in April 2002. Some 6,000 are expected to attend in 2005, according to the RHS Web site.
The growth is astounding—"like wildflowers," says Carol Edwards, Queen Mother of the Red Hat Cow Belles of Silver City.
Jan Sherman founded Red Hat Roadrunners, Silver City's first RHS chapter, in August 2003. Sherman began turning away prospective memberships after her chapter grew to 40—almost double the recommended size. Today Silver City has five active chapters and most are not taking new members. Deming and Tyrone have their own chapters. Las Cruces boasts a half-dozen chapters.
"I encourage interested women to form their own groups," Sherman says. And Edwards adds, "It's easy—just go on the Web site—and the other Queen Mothers will help."
Why do so many over-50 women seek membership?
"You don't have any rules," says Edwards. "You get together and have fun and wear the ridiculous hats and purple clothes in the years you worked so hard to get to. And it's not about being under stress because you can't come every time. Just come when you can and enjoy."
Sharon Beach, "Hysterian" of the Red Hat Roadrunners, adds, "We've all had professional lives. This is the time for us to have fun."
Gerri Graham, Queen Mother of Gila Hatters, points out that people rarely have dress-up occasions anymore. "I like the casual life," she says, "but it's nice to be able to dress up once in awhile and do something different that you don't ordinarily do."
"I got to know some women I would never have met," echoes Jody McSherry, Queen Mother of Deming's Desert Dazzlers. "It's easy to get used to seeing the same people all the time. Now I get out and meet new people."
"We don't have minutes or meetings," adds Lois Anderson, of the Twelve Red Hat Mamas.
Each chapter plans events independently and the choices reflect the tastes of the members. For example, the Cow Belles (ages 49 to 81) meet one Saturday a month to have lunch. "Once we had a picnic at Little Walnut," says Edwards. And during lunch at the Pink Store, "we were the celebrities of Palomas. Everybody wanted to take pictures. They'd come to our table. They'd line us up. We had our margaritas and everybody was happy."
In contrast, Jan Sherman, Queen Mother of the Red Hat Roadrunners, says, "We typically go to an event, such as a concert, ballet or a play. We like to get out and show off our red hats!"
Deming's Desert Dazzlers prefer to meet in restaurants for lunch or dessert. "We go Dutch treat so we don't collect money and nobody has to clean up," says Queen Mother McSherry.
Several chapters hold holiday Open House events and guests are invited. "Very informal," says Anderson. "Last year we invited the husbands—and some of the men wore red hats too!"
When they get together, "the one thing we don't do is gossip," says Edwards. "And we don't really talk about work—one of the things we get away from. We talk about our experiences in life, especially happy times. One member recalls coming to Silver City 40 years ago—on a train. She got off at the end of Bullard Street."
They do talk about clothes—and the Red Hat Society has come a long way from the thrift shop where founder Sue Ellen Cooper bought her first red headgear. The society's Web site reports licensing agreements with 22 companies to produce "quality merchandise" sold in "select retail stores."
Holly Sytch, owner of Silver City's A La Mode boutique, was surprised when a vendor first suggested adding RHS lines to her merchandise. Today, women come to her store from Deming and as far away as Socorro, NM, and Mesa, Ariz.
The famous red hats start at $20 and go up to $48, says Sytch. A RHS sweater and slacks outfit might cost $42—-but a more upscale pair of slacks might be $50. "We don't ask for RHS identification," Sytch says. "It's an honor system." And of course anyone can buy the merchandise as gifts for RHS members.
"Some like dressy clothes and some prefer to be more casual," Sytch adds. She gave a bright red baseball cap to Cissy McAndrew, a Red Hat Roadrunner who heads Silver City's Chamber of Commerce, because "it's her kind of hat!"
Sytch knows the Queen Mothers of all five chapters in Silver City. She keeps track of "who's bought what" so members won't appear in identical outfits at the same event.
Dillard's stores carry the full line. And Jody McSherry, Queen Mother of the Deming chapter, reports, "When I visited Branson, Missouri, every store had purple dresses and red hats and boas. It's just gone wild. It's hit the country by storm."
So if you haven't seen any Red Hats yet, keep watching. Members love being on display and if you don't come across a group, they'll come to you. Deming's chapter appeared in last summer's Duck Race parade. "It was a hot day and we all had umbrellas," remembers McSherry.
The Red Hat Roadrunners were in last year's Fourth of July Parade as well as the WNMU Homecoming parade. The Gila Hatters appeared in Silver City's Christmas Parade. "And we're hoping to be in the Fourth of July Parade next year—maybe with all the chapters together," says Graham.
At the rate they're growing, the RHS chapters may need a whole parade of their own.
Cathy Goodwin is a freelance writer and business/career consultant (www.cathygoodwin.com).