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After Work: The Red Hat Society And Me

“I bought a purple faux suede pantsuit and jaunty red hat for the daytime events, a purple tiered flapper number for the evening and a purple not-revealing nightgown for the pajamas breakfast…’’

Dona Gibbs plunged enthusiastically into the Red Hat Society, but when she found herself gazing through a window at not-in-operation candy making machinery she realized it was time to permanently doff the purple and red.

For more of Dona’s delicious columns please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

I was a Red Hat Society dropout. Sorry, Exalted Queen Mother Ellen Sue Cooper, but when it came time for expected squeals of fun and frivolity, I couldn’t fake it.

For those of you who’ve never encountered a batch of middle-aged and older women wearing red hats and purple outfits having tea, in line for the theater, or gawking at some local tourist attraction, the Red Hat Society is a “dis-organization” of 1.5 million women in 50 states in the U.S. and 30 countries.

At the New Year’s parade, Londoners will have their chance to see the Scarlett Floosies” from Corryton, Tennessee in their red hat splendor among the marchers.

The aforesaid Sue Ellen Cooper founded the Red Hat Society almost accidentally when she presented a friend with a thrift shop red fedora in celebration of the big five-o birthday. They then gave red hats to others and a veritable movement was begun.

Now the members can apply for their own Red Hat platinum MasterCard, read Red Hat books and shop in a huge Red Hat online store which sells all kinds of Red Hat apparel, gifts, decorations and, yes, red hats.

Recently I was reminded of my brief history as a Red Hat Society member by an article in the New York Times. “Hats! A New Musical for the Rest of Your Life,” opened in Denver, the article reported, and is slated to play in New Orleans next year and then in casinos around the U.S.

Among the contributors to this show are Kathie Lee Gifford and Melissa Manchester. Harrah’s, the casino operators, is behind it all. According to the news story, Harrah’s thinks it’s a perfect fit with one of their target demographics: women between 49-53.

The red hat plus purple attire has its genesis in a poem called “Warning” by Jenny Joseph. Space does not allow me to reprint it here, thank goodness, but you have probably spotted it stuck to a refrigerator door somewhere. It’s that kind of inspirational verse.

“We believe that silliness is the comedy relief of life,” states the Red Hat’s Society’s purpose.

Okay, I was certainly on board with that. I was over 50. And I love hats.

So I went looking for a chapter in Florida. Chapters were easy to find as you might imagine since there are hundreds of thousands of women over 50 there, but many were filled up, taking no more new members. I searched and found an open one and joined on-line. Very exclusive.

Many of the chapters are simply named the “Insert Name of Retirement Community Here Red Hatters” but lots of others are called something on the order of the “Hot Flashing Mommas”. Yes, really. I figured though what might be lacking in real wit might be made up in fun.

My Queen telephoned and explained that the next event was the Florida state convention. I would be welcome, she said excitedly, to attend this three-day conference. The site was only about six miles up the thruway so I decided to plunge in.

And plunge in I did. Right into the mall where I bought a purple faux suede pantsuit and jaunty red hat for the daytime events, a purple tiered flapper number for the evening and a purple not-revealing nightgown for the pajamas breakfast. I spent a couple of happy hours fashioning a cocktail hat out of fake flowers, netting and ribbon. Damnit, I was going to look good having fun.

My spirits sank when I drove into the parking lot of the hotel, a businessperson’s featureless tower of glass and marble right off the thruway. Women were piling out of those boring reliable cars that women of a certain age in Florida favor. Many were sporting out of state plates. Snow birds, they’re called. I spotted a minivan plastered with a sign,” Permanent makeup. Eyebrows! Eyeliner! Lip liner! Tattooed in Real Life Colors! See Bonnie Sue!”

Well, I thought, “It’s Florida.”

The first event was registering and milling around. No one seemed inclined to chat. I longed for a glass of wine. No one was having any. Not if it weren’t included in the registration fee.

And so it went. The evening dinner was pedestrian. Chicken. The fashion show was mildly amusing. Women strutted their thrift shop finds wearing sneakers.

The woman next to me told me how very lucky she been to find someone to sit with her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband so she could attend. A dinner conversation like this can certainly deflate high spirits but I applauded her for getting out for the evening.

Next morning I was still hanging in—and hanging out with the rest of the Red Hats in the dining room for breakfast in my purple not-revealing nightgown. Gosh, some women had really made an all out effort. I saw more purple marabou trimmed negligees than I imagined existed. I heard laughter, but it seemed nervous in origin.

Not one to be a quitter, I gave the Red Hats another try. This time, a chapter event. We visited a local chocolate factory famous for its Christmas lights. After a five-minute walk through not-such-a wonderland of miniature houses, bridges over nothing and Christmas trees, we were ushered into the store where I gazed through the large picture windows at the not-in-operation candy making machinery.

The next time? For me there was no next time.

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