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Red Hat Society gives adult women a 'license to play'

Friday, June 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

CAPE GIRARDEAU — We've all seen them. Groups of ladies "of a certain age" donning bright red hats and purple clothing. They pop up at restaurants, concerts and shopping malls, among other places. We've also seen the Red Hat merchandise, from lapel pins to Christmas ornaments to luggage tags, for sale in boutiques and catalogs.

But what's it all about? What does being a member of the Red Hat Society actually mean?

"It's a license for women to play," said Brenda Knat, queen of the Dazzling Divas of Sikeston. "For example, if I went outside with my grandchild and played in a mud puddle, people would say, 'What a terrific grandmother she is!' But if I went out and played in that same puddle by myself, people would look at me as odd or eccentric. Women my age, or any age, for that matter, still like to play."

The Red Hat Society started in 1998 when Sue Ellen Cooper, founder and "exalted queen mother" of the Red Hat Society, saw a beautiful vintage red hat at a thrift store. The hat was inexpensive, so Cooper purchased it. She later read a poem titled "Warning" by Jenny Joseph. The poem begins with the line, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me." The poem goes on about other things the author will do as she gets older that might not seem proper or suitable for someone her age.

Cooper was so taken with the poem that she gave a friend the red hat and a copy of the poem as a birthday gift. The gift was a hit, and Cooper gave the same gift to each of her friends on their birthdays. From the hats came the purple outfits and the first Red Hat chapter began. There are now more than 40,000 Red Hat Society chapters worldwide.

Fifty is the pivotal age in the Red Hat Society. All members 50 years and older wear red hats and purple clothing to meetings and events that they attend together. Women younger than 50 are encouraged to join as well, but they typically wear pink hats and lavender clothing.

"We have members in our chapter as young as in their 20s all the way up to my age, which is 76," said Elsie Eggimann, queen of the Classy Sassy Chicks of the Gordonville/Jackson area. (The title "queen," by the way, is given to a woman who starts a Red Hat Society chapter.)

Both Eggimann and Knat's chapters are supporting members of the Red Hat Society, which means that each member pays dues to the Red Hat Society headquarters in California.

"Some Red Hat groups form but they don't pay dues to the headquarters, so they are not supporting members," Eggimann said.

Eggimann started the Classy Sassy Chicks about 10 years ago, after her husband died. Her group of 14 members meets about once a month for dinner, fellowship and to talk about upcoming activities.

Activities have included trips to the mall (with a ride on the merry-go-round), being in the Jackson Christmas parade and hosting a tea for 18 area Red Hat chapters. Every member in Eggimann's chapter has a matching purple dress for really special events.

"I say, let it all hang loose," Eggimann said. "I really enjoy meeting the women who join. These are women that I'd never have crossed paths with otherwise. And now, with technology, even if members move away you can still email back and forth and stay connected."

Knat agreeds that meeting women from all walks of life is her favorite part of the Red Hat Society.

"We have about a dozen members who range in age from 53 to 77 years old," Knat, 57, said.

The Dazzling Divas get together about twice a month.

"We have some members who enjoy going out of town on day trips and other members who would rather stay closer to home and do something on a smaller scale," Knat said. "We have some members who still work and some who don't, so we try to plan different outings so that something will appeal to everyone."

A day trip might include a shopping trip to Kimmswick or St. Louis or a visit to the Paducah (Ky.) Quilt Show. Smaller outings could include meeting at a member's home and doing crafts or going to the Sikeston Train Depot and out to lunch.

Concerts are a favorite activity of the Dazzling Divas, Knat said. "However, if we go to a concert or some other event where our bright red hats might block another audience member's view, we will leave our hats in the car out of courtesy."


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