- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Imagine a women’s organization (or rather “dis-organization”) that promotes no responsibility other than to be oneself, has no axes to grind, holds no meetings, has no committees, no minutes, no men.

To gain membership, you must: be half a century old, wear fire-engine-red hats and purple dresses — all shades are acceptable — revere irreverence, giggle a lot, be silly and laugh just a little too loudly simply because you can.

That’s the credo of the Red Hat Society, a national organization that boasts more than 10,000 chapters around the country and about half a million members since its inception three years ago. The Red Hat Society was started by a few women who decided to greet middle age with style and humor.

“We’re not invisible old broads that nobody sees; we’re just a little crazy, and that’s OK,” says Carol Harrison, the Queen Mum of the Belles and the Babes of Manassas.

“This is giving us an identity. Men don’t get old, they get wealthier, sexier, and then they get new babes. And, women, well, we get older and learn to adjust, but the Red Hat Society lets us have a little extra fun with panache,” she says.

Heads turn and tongues wag whenever these bold, brash and bodacious Red Hatters meet in public.

“Whether we go to the mall or go to lunch, people look at you and think you’re crazy, and that’s the fun part,” Mrs. Harrison says.

Mrs. Harrison, 65, put on her red hat last year after a neighbor decided to start her own chapter in Northern Virginia. The Belles and the Babes hosts monthly events, whether it’s an afternoon tea, a day trip to a historic location or a leisurely cruise along the Potomac, she says. Many of the chapter’s events are open to other Red Hatters, she adds.

The last event Mrs. Harrison hosted was a Red Hat Breakfast Bingo. “Everybody showed up in PJs, had breakfast, and then we played bingo,” she says.

“It’s an organization that has come about when it was needed — baby boomers are coming of age, there’s a larger population of older people. Our society hasn’t changed that much, but women’s needs have changed — going back to the same old line: We are not invisible. Everywhere the Red Hat Society goes, people flock to it,” says the nurse-turned-private-investigator.

She understands that not everyone has reached the regal age of 50. That’s not a problem. Mrs. Harrison says ladies who fall short of the big five-o are welcome, but they don’t get to wear the red hats yet. Younger ladies don pink hats and lavender attire, she says.

The society may have started three years ago, but the movement dates to 1961, when British author Jenny Joseph penned a poem titled “Warning,” which welcomes aging and the freedom that accompanies it.

The author’s work struck a chord with Joyce Entremont long before she had ever heard of the Red Hat Society. The garrulous and outgoing mother framed the poem and hung it on her kitchen wall 10 years ago as a reminder of how life should be lived — with joy and laughter.

“I love what it says about getting older and doing what you want to do. That’s what this is all about and what keeps me going in this: camaraderie, friendships, the unique places that we visit and getting dressed up in these ridiculous red and purple outfits,” says Ms. Entremont, Queen Mum and founder of Hell’s Belles of Prince William County.

She founded the Hell’s Belles chapter last summer, and 55 women proudly associate themselves with the rambunctious chapter started by the fun-loving lady.

“My girlfriend says, ‘Joyce, you know, this is right up your alley,’ but I didn’t do anything about it for a while. Finally, I says, ‘Heck, it sounds like fun.’ So, I called a few chapters — many of them were closed to new members; others met during the week, and I couldn’t do that. And then one of the gals suggested that I start my own chapter. I invited a few friends to join, and they said yes,” Ms. Entremont says.

The Denver native, who recently turned 55, says she’s transformed in the bold, brash colors. Like Cinderella who slipped her itsy-bitsy foot into the glass slipper, once Ms. Entremont puts on her red chapeaus, her spirits are lifted immediately. She feels like an ingenue.

“At our age, there aren’t a lot of people who take a second glance, but when we have that purple and red on — people gawk, and it makes you feel good. Just about every place we go, we pick up new members,” she says.

A confessed and unrepentant shopaholic, Ms. Entremont says she can’t walk into a department store without zeroing in on purple. She searches the shelves and racks for purple shoes, accessories and clothing.

“I would classify myself as out of control. I probably have 11 red hats, and I can’t count the number of purple outfits in my closet. At one time, I didn’t own one thing that was purple. I actually hated the color — when I put it on, I looked terminally ill — but when I put the red on, it livens it up some. I look like I’m among the living,” she says.

She says the “dis-organization” has enhanced the quality of her life tenfold. Along with her job at the Prince William County Service Authority — close to her home because she’s into convenience at this juncture of life — she stays busy scheduling events for Hell’s Belles and maintaining her 30-year-old house to keep it from falling apart.

“I’m a lot happier than I thought I would be at this stage of my life. I’ve spent the last 20 years as Mom. Part of the Red Hat Society is: All my life, I’ve done for others, now it’s time to do for me. We’ve been wives, mothers, employees and all that stuff. Now, it’s time to celebrate ourselves,” Ms. Entremont says.

She agrees with fellow Red Hatter Mrs. Harrison about the friendships that develop among women in the groups.

“I guess what I enjoy the most is getting to meet and getting to know people that I would never have run into under any other circumstances. I’ve made some great friends, and I’m really glad I decided to get involved with this. No one anticipated the interest or growth of this grass-roots movement — there are a lot of ladies who are full of life and ready to go out and enjoy it,” she says.

It all started when Sue Ellen Cooper (the Queen Mother of the Red Hat Society) bought a bright red fedora at a thrift shop in Tucson, Ariz., because it was “cheap” and “dashing.” A few years later, she read Miss Joseph’s poem and felt that they were on the same page. She decided to give a good friend of her’s a vintage red topper and a copy of “Warning.” Her friend got a kick out of the gift and gave the same gift to another friend, and so on and so on.

Soon, the group decided to go out for tea “in full regalia,” because Miss Joseph threatens to “… wear purple and a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me … .” They each went out and purchased a purple outfit to complete the look.

Recently, seven Northern Virginia chapters of the Red Hat Society met for dinner at Ned Devine’s in Old Town Fairfax followed by dessert — a sheet cake with purple frosting emblazoned with red letters spelling “You Go Girl” — and a fashion show at Art to Wear, an eclectic boutique that features the work of Fairfax-area artisans. The fun evening was organized by Kay Rongley, a member of the Belles and Babes who went to great lengths to ensure a good time was had by all — and it was.

During the fashion show, 30 women donned their red hats, which ranged from the conservative small brim with ribbon to masterpieces of the millinery art with red netting, birds, fruits and flowers. Although there wasn’t a catwalk to parade down, Red Hat Society models strutted as if they were on a Paris runway — the eccentric former editor of Vogue, Diana Vreeland, surely would have approved. The audience, members of Belles and Babes, Hell’s Belles, Cackling Crows, Banker Babes, the Cherry Blossom cHATterboxes of Fairfax Chantilly, the Scarlet Sophisticates and Totally Eccentric Adventurous Red Hatters of Vienna, ooh’d and ahhh’d.

“Show me some attitude,” one Red Hatter unabashedly screamed out as a model moved to the right, then to the left and pivoted back on her right heel — to give the full effect. Afterward, the ladies shopped well into the night.

“I thought the evening turned out just wonderfully. It was obvious everyone was having a great time. The models had a great time, and I was pleased with the comments after the event,” Mrs. Rongley, 62, says of the girl’s night out.

“I’ve enjoyed being a part of this group because I think it offers you the opportunity to do something exciting or a little rebellious … ,” she says.

An Army wife for 30 years and an events planner for nearly a lifetime, Mrs. Rongley pulled the activity together without a hitch. She enjoys adding special touches to her events, and the dinner and fashion show were no exception. She commissioned Fairfax artist Evelyn Rich of Distinctly Rich to create magnets of famous ladies wearing red hats — including Betty Grable, Ingrid Bergman, Carmen Miranda, Winnie Mandela and Rosie the Riveter — as mementos for the ladies to take home.

Mrs. Rongley, who lives in Fairfax, selected the venue for the fashion extravaganza. A longtime patron of the arts, the stylish grandmother with a penchant for hats wanted to expose other chapters to the funky Art to Wear boutique.

“I love the store and wanted to introduce it to other women — that was the whole idea. I support the arts, and it’s a store for artists, a place where they can showcase their work,” Mrs. Rongley says.

Charlene Meier says her affiliation with the Red Hatters has made her a little more outgoing and that it’s far easier for her just to start chatting with folks, especially since she serves as Queen Mum of the Cherry Blossom cHATterboxes. She prefers to be referred to as “Her Ladyship,” she says.

Once she and a girlfriend heard about the Red Hat Society two years ago, she knew it was a “go” for her. Ms. Meier established her chapter in January 2002. Twenty-six ladies attended the first gathering, and 20 joined on the spot, she says. Her chapter usually hosts one activity a month. However, during the summer months, many of her members travel. She’s revving up for the fall.

So far, her chapter has hosted teas and dinners; gone on wine-tasting tours at the Oasis Vineyards near Front Royal; and held scrapbooking, stamping and paint-your-own pottery parties, Ms. Meier says.

“Last year, we tried to get into the Cherry Blossom Parade, but the director of the D.C. Jaycees told us he didn’t think we were colorful enough and we didn’t perform — but we all play the kazoo,” she says.

Since you can’t miss a group of Red Hatters, the president of the Cherry Blossom Festival saw the eight ladies and paid them a big compliment, telling them just how great they looked. Needless to say, the compliment went over well.

“Age is only a number because in my own mind, I’m 35. Besides, women today at 50 are not old. I have friends in their 60s, and I don’t consider them old at all. I think, at one time ‘Mom was 50 and she was old,’ but I don’t think that holds true anymore,” Ms. Meier says.

“Today, women are more educated, well-traveled, and there’s no stigma if you don’t have a male partner for validation,” she says.

There are Red Hat Society chapters in the District, Maryland and Virginia. If you’re interested in getting information or joining a local chapter, you can send an e-mail to Redhatqueencj@aol.com.

WARNING

By Jenny Joseph

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 satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens

And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Or only bread and pickle for a week

And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry

And pay our rent and not swear in the street

And set a good example for the children.

We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

SOURCE: Souvenir Press Ltd., LondonSBN:0285634119

Warning: When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, Jenny Joseph, 2000 Published Souvenir Press Ltd, London,

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