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Red-blooded women

With red hats and purple dresses, they're aging head-on. And they're probably in your town.

[Times photo: Stephen Coddington]
More than 350 members of the Red Hat Society met this month at Rock Crusher Canyon.

By MARY ANN KOSLASKY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


PIZZAZZ!! (n) -- The quality of being exciting or attractive, as: (a) glamor or (b) vitality.

PIZZAZZ!! (n) -- 352 women all dressed in purple outfits and bright red hats and having a blast, full of glamor and vitality.

* * *

CRYSTAL RIVER -- On Oct. 17, Rock Crusher Canyon was filled to its bright red brim with PIZZAZZ!! More than 350 members of the Red Hat Society from Citrus County and surrounding areas -- including Brooksville, Spring Hill and Dunnellon -- gathered to celebrate growing old with PIZZAZZ.

The Cat in the Hat would have been hard-pressed to keep up with these women. Hats ranged from a Western Stetson to a 1920s flapper cloche, from a sequined fedora to an embroidered baseball cap, from a plumed picture hat to a bedecked visor.

The hats came in velvets, leathers, felts, straws and crocheted paper braid. They were trimmed with polyester horsehair mesh, silk flowers, feathers, sequins, netting and even a manatee.

The commonality: They were all RED!

With more than 105,000 members worldwide, the Red Hat Society caters to women 50 and older. It offers them the opportunity to age not only gracefully, but also with wit and vivacity. In Citrus County alone, there are more than 30 Red Hat chapters, with more being added all the time. The only real criterion for joining is the willingness to wear a red hat and purple dress to group functions.

At the Rock Crusher Canyon gathering, Inverness Mayor Joyce Rogers proudly wore a red hat the size of a UFO. "I love hats," said Rogers, who has been a member of the Precious Peaches chapter in Inverness for just more than a month.

When asked how young she is, Rogers replied, "I'm going to be 60 forever. I enjoyed being 60 so much last year that I've decided to be 60 again this year."

That seemed to pretty much sum up the feelings of the women who attended the luncheon and performance by Razz Ma Tazz and jazz trumpeter Bill White, who performed a tribute to Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Getting into the spirit of the day, White donned a bright red beret and a "red hat" pin.

Eleanor Johnson, 63, said she attended because "it's fun, fun, fun!"

Bobbie Keane, Queen Mother of the Flaming Fogies chapter in Crystal River, organized the event after Betty Williams, another member of her group, suggested that they meet some other Red Hatters in the county. Keane sent out e-mails to some of the groups, and from that, it took on a life of its own.

"Every time I turned around, there were new groups contacting me," said Keane, who was wearing a crown and a red feather boa. "I could have had 300 more."

Tiffany Conley, 21, a server at the event, appeared a little stunned as she moved smilingly between tables.

"It's very unique . . . astonishing," she said. "It's nice to see these ladies pushing their liberty." With a rush, she added, "I've never seen so much red and purple in my life!"

The history

Even on hand to join the fun was Linda Murphy, co-founder of the original Fullerton, Calif., group.

"Look around you," Murphy told the audience. "This is probably the only time you won't be jealous because someone is wearing the same thing you are."

After the laughter subsided, Murphy added: "We are women who are not about to be written off, and we have a lot of fun left in this life."

Murphy, who now lives in Tarpon Springs, will mark 60 years on Nov. 11. As a self-styled "roving ambassadoress" at the event, she shared a little Red Hat history with the group.

Several years ago, Sue Ellen Cooper, who is recognized as the Exalted Queen Mother, purchased a red fedora at a thrift shop on a whim. Later, she discovered Warning! When I Am An Old Woman, a poem written by British poet Jenny Joseph.

A couple years later, Cooper gave a red hat and a copy of the poem to Murphy, a longtime friend, for her birthday.

In part, the poem reads:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me, ...

And summer gloves and satin sandals. ...

And make up for the sobriety of my youth. ...

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?

So people who know

are not too shocked and surprised,

When suddenly I am old

and start to wear purple.

Cooper and Murphy went on to give several other friends the same presents on their 50th birthdays until it occurred to them they were becoming a "Red Hat Society."

Inspired by the poem from Joseph, who was only 29 when she wrote it in 1961, the women eventually donned their purple dresses, their red hats and their biggest smiles, and went public. It became a great success as the women each thought of other friends who would enjoy the fun.

Nancy Manning, 64, of Homosassa, already loved the poem, so it didn't take much convincing when Murphy gave her a red hat and suggested that she start a chapter. They became the Steel Magnolias in September 1999.

According to Murphy, who had known Manning when they both lived in Virginia, the Steel Magnolias became the first "actual chapter of the Red Hat Society" in the United States.

When Romantic Homes Magazine decided to publish a story about the Red Hat Society in July 2000, it interviewed the original women in Fullerton, Calif., and the Steel Magnolias in Homosassa.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The expansion

Calls and e-mails to the magazine and to the original women were overwhelming. In just more than two years, the mania has spread, with those first two lines of Joseph's poem becoming an anthem of sorts for women in the United States and 11 other countries.

According to Sharon Post, 57, the "e-mail female" of the Red Hat Society home office in Fullerton, there are more than 5,200 chapters around the world. There are six in Australia, two in the Bahamas, 115 in Canada, three in Mexico and four in England. At last count, there was one chapter each in Cuba, Germany, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Wales.

With more than 1,000 chapters and more being added daily, Florida wears the Red Hat crown. Home state California is a distant second with just more than 550 chapters.

"I think there was obviously a need for women to get together for common support," Post said. "Many of these ladies have lost a husband or a child and . . . were at their wits' end.

"The Red Hats came along, and they're living life again. They're moving on with life."

The way of life

When asked why the Red Hat Society seems to appeal to so many women, Murphy was quick with her answer:

"I think because we as women have had to be so nurturing and responsible in our adult lives. . . . We used to enjoy tea parties as little girls and dressing up in our mothers' clothes. . . . In the Red Hat Society, we are allowing ourselves to let the little girl in us come out."

Dr. Pauline Abbott, director of the California State University-Fullerton Gerontology Institute and a member of the Dames of Vines and Roses chapter, Abbott is conducting a study that examines "what makes this organization so successful for midlife and older women." "We are exploring the mentoring aspect that is taking place with younger and older women, the somewhat frivolous aspects of "dressing up' and why that is so important, the camaraderie that is happening -- why people join, why they stay, and what is happening in this "group work.' . . . These are midlife women who are expressing themselves, "playing' sometimes for the first time, and yet there is a support network that has developed that is incredible," she explained by e-mail.

She goes on to say, "Speaking as a gerontologist, as we get older, we see our friends and families changing, moving and passing away. New friendships take time and energy to cultivate, and we tend to be more protective of our time (not to waste it). The red hats are providing a way for women to come together for fun and companionship to fill a void that might not have been even recognized.

"It's such an interesting phenomenon. Why not be part of it? I happen to be in my mid-50s, and my daughter (mid-30s) joined as a "pink hatter' in the same group so that we could do some fun things together."

It was Cooper who decided to open the group to younger women, essentially making them "ladies-in-waiting."

Murphy notes that when these women reach age 50, they can celebrate a "red-uation," passing from wearing pink hats and lavender clothing to the red hats and purple clothing of a true Red Hatter.

To Abbott, this ceremony "is an interesting method to remove the stigma of middle age and to make it into a positive marker event."

"There is so much negative publicity about aging and yet so many people are aging positively, actively, and changing the image of the mature years," she said.

Perhaps the real secret of the group's phenomenal growth has something to do with their statement of purpose as listed on the Red Hat Society Web site.

"The Red Hat Society began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan. We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next."

The membership

The group has few rules: Members must be women 50 or older, must wear red hats and purple clothing at society functions and must have fun. Women younger than 50 may join as "pink hatters," wearing pink hats and lavender clothing.

Information on the Red Hat Society, local chapters and more, can be found online at www.redhatsociety.com.

One hint: If it says the group is closed, but you are interested, don't hesitate to contact them. Occasionally, people drop out or move on and an opening is available.

Vickie LaMarche, owner of Victoria's Closet in Hernando, has only one fear -- or perhaps it's a hope.

"I claim they're taking over the world," she chuckled.

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