Story and photo by Jessica Calderwood
It all started with a red fedora and a poem.
The items were a 55th birthday present from Sue Ellen Cooper to a good friend in 1998.
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,” wrote English poet Jenny Joseph in her 1961 poem titled “Warning.”
This poet’s wry words inspired Cooper and a group of five friends in Fullerton, Calif., to dress up in red hats and purple clothing and go out for tea on April 25, 1998.
Thus began the Red Hat Society.
Word spread, and soon thousands of local chapters consisting of 20 to 25 members began to dot the map. Women everywhere wanted to join in this light-hearted attitude toward aging. The poem has become the credo of Red Hatters worldwide.
Today, there are approximately 30,000 chapters in all 50 states and more than 25 countries. In order to wear the red hat and purple clothing, one must be a woman over 50. Those not meeting the age requirement wear pink and lavender. Leaders of the chapters are referred to as Queen Mother and members call themselves Red Hatters.
It is almost inevitable for us to reach a stage in life when loss becomes very prominent, whether it is loss of loved one, health, mobility or even enthusiasm for life. Linda Torres sees this in the lives of the people she interacts with every day. Torres is the Engage Life Director at Atria Senior Living in Sandy, Utah.
Doris Isom, 86, is Queen Mother to the Jordan Jewels, who consider the West Jordan Senior Center their home base. Isom began frequenting the senior center to ward off loneliness after her husband died six years ago. In response to the urging of the staff, Isom headed up organizing a chapter of the RHS at the senior center in 2006.
The Red Hat Society “provides an avenue for silliness,” Torres said.
Each member in the Atria Sandy RHS chapter embraced silliness to create their own Red Hat name, not required for Red Hatters, but still fun. “Sexy Savannah,” “Magical Millie,” “Bold and Beautiful Bernice,” “Ruthless Ruth,” “Whimsical Wendy” and “Witty Wanda” have enjoyed ice cream socials, facials, makeovers and a formal tea party with fine china.
“I think everyone likes to feel that they belong to something,” Torres said.
For Judi Freegardy, 58, that was the biggest reason she sought out the Red Hat Society in the little town of Payson, Ariz. Freegardy grew up in Phoenix and relishes the country life she now enjoys in Payson. The population difference is significant, with Phoenix at about 1.5 million and Payson a mere 14,000.
“I wanted to feel connected to my little community,” Freegardy said.
After hearing about the Red Hat Society in Payson, Freegardy knew she’d found her way to get connected. But she discovered neither of the two existing chapters was open to new members. Each chapter tries to keep their number around 20 to 25 so they can gather more easily.
So, Freegardy decided to put an ad in the newspaper inviting the women of Red Hat age in the community to gather for lunch at a local restaurant. She was floored when 72 women showed up.
Now years later, there are 10 to 15 chapters in the small community of Payson. Freegardy is part of a chapter of women who don their personalized red hats and go out to lunch every week.
To show her personality and love of gardening, Freegardy sports purple overalls with her red hat. “Embellishing your hat shows who you are in the tribe,” Freegardy said.
Doris Isom is especially proud of her elaborately decorated hat. Isom’s hat features a tiara, by virtue of her status as Queen Mother, and dangling purple beads trim the brim. She smiles as she recalled her reaction after affixing the beads; her hat reminded her of one of her mother’s lamp shades.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the girls in Red Hats reach out and volunteer for their community, we’re not just out being silly and having lunch,” Freegardy said.
That is especially true for the Jordan Jewels, whose activities are largely service oriented. A look through Isom’s lovingly compiled scrapbook shows the Jordan Jewels decorating the Children’s Justice Center of Salt Lake County every year for Christmas, volunteering for the county by making more than 200 scarves for the homeless and crafting quilts for Project Linus.
Isom fondly recounts cruising through West Jordan on the back of a Harley, her feather boa streaming in the wind. The Jordan Jewels join with the Bikers Against Child Abuse in West Jordan on its annual ride.
Simply put, there are no rules. Members show up if they want, there’s no pressure or dues. The RHS is women coming together to edify one another and embrace life and aging with humor and flair.