How does one write about a first-hand experience with the Red Hat Society? Well, it’s difficult. Try processing a fast paced weekend with 300 middle-aged women dressed in purple and bright red hats, participating in a range of activities from belly dancing classes, to a pajama breakfast, to the official society sport: shopping! The ‘Glam on the Grand’ event that I attended was certainly hectic and visually exhausting, due in part to my role as the official weekend photographer. So not only was I photographing for my own purposes, but I also had to shoot ‘commercially’ by taking in mind group shots and capturing the various activities the ladies participated in.
Two weeks before I photographed the RHS convention, I had never heard of the red hatters. I think most people have never heard of the red hatters. But when you learn about this quickly growing society, it’s a wonder why you’ve never seen a group of woman in red and purple walking down the street or sitting in your local coffee shop. Currently, there are over 42,000 chapters around the world and an estimated 1.5 million registered members. Surprising? Also, take into consideration that in April the RHS celebrated its 10th birthday. That’s some serious growth in only ten years!
So what exactly is the red society? The definition from the RHS website is: a global society of woman approaching the age of fifty or beyond that connects and supports women in their pursuit of Fun, Freedom, and Fulfillment. Let me stress the FUN part of that description. The minute I arrived on the scene of the convention, I was met by dozens of friendly women, dressed up to the tee and eager to have their photos taken. Many took the time to describe to me what being a red hatter meant to them, and how it had impacted their lives. To summarize, these are woman who are not afraid to face ageing with gusto, silliness, and pride. They are women who have worked hard in their careers, or raising children, or making a home, and are now ready to kick back and enjoy themselves. They are women who want to have fun, and are not afraid of doing that in public, while dressed in purple and red!
The society was founded over a decade ago when Sue Ellen Cooper randomly decided to buy a red fedora at a gift shop for no better reason than she thought it looked dashing. Two years later, when she discovered a poem by Jenny Joseph that depicts an older woman in purple clothing and a red hat, she gave her friend a red hat for her birthday. When she recognized how much her friend enjoyed the hat and poem, Sue Ellen continued to buy red hats for her closest friends. Before long an informal society was formed that included a group of women, all the best of friends, who met for social engagements in full purple and red regalia.
Over time the society spread to other cities as women told their friends about the group or bought red hats for their friends to enjoy. New groups of red hatters began to spring up in neighboring cities, and before long there were a number of chapters around the country.
The wonderful thing about the RHS is the open nature in which it exists. The RHS calls itself a “dis-organization,” and they are proud of their lack of rules and by-laws. The only rule is that you have to be 50 to be a red hatter, and if you are under 50 you must wear a pink hat. The only other guideline that I noted was within the formation of new chapters. Whomever starts a chapter receives the title Queen Mother, but anyone can start a new chapter and anything can be done within that chapter. The other women within the chapter grant themselves equally extravagant names. For example: “Vice-Mother, The Mother of All Vices”; “Mistress of Anxiety, The Patron Chapter Worrier”; “Lady Bakes-A-Lot”; and “Dame I Don’t Give A Damn”. Sue Ellen Cooper, the founder, is referred to as ‘Exalted Queen Mother’. The silliness of the names tells you a lot about the frivolity of these women–they’re out to have fun.
For two full days I had the opportunity to photograph the red-hatting women in their full glory. As one of the only males on the scene, you can imagine how they quickly adopted me as the one to tease and make fun of. I kind of felt like I had 300 grandmothers that I had to speak politely to when spoken to. But honestly, it was a very good time and I was overwhelmed by the ladies’ friendliness towards each other, by their sisterhood (even with women they had just met), and their eagerness to have fun.
When someone asks a red hatter what they actually do, they would probably reply with a smile, “Nothing!” It’s sort of the motto of the society that because there are no rules, and because the goal is to have fun and find freedom, that there is really nothing on a red hatter’s agenda. But I found that hardly to be as true as they wanted because the women I met seemed tirelessly busy with having fun and staying active. It also became clear that a lot of the red hatters attend a dozen or more of the RHS conventions throughout the year, on top of their local chapter activities and duties. These women are staying busy doing nothing!
At the convention, there were a number of activities for the women to participate in. Most notable was the shopping room where the red hatters could add to their bling of fake diamonds, hats, boas, and purple attire. It was a spectacle!
I was amazed by many of the ladies’ energy that endured throughout the weekend. Saturday afternoon included belly dancing lessons. I caught this woman in action and she chased after me for taking her photo but secretly I think she loved the attention.
One of the amazing attributes of Sue Ellen Cooper is her ability to put up with having so many pictures taken. Throughout the weekend she had to pose for hundreds of photos as each red hatter wanted to have their picture with the ‘Exalted Queen Mother’. It’s a rare opportunity for some of these women to come to a conference and have Sue Ellen attend as well. She is unfortunately treated like royalty by some of these woman, but I think it’s a natural, healthy respect. They admire the woman for starting something that they have found a home within.
I recognized that despite the titles, there was no adomosity between the various chapters or queens. I’m particularly fond of one memory, when a group of black ladies from Detroit came late to the conference and arrived during lunch. All the tables in the dining hall were full with the exception of a few that had an empty seat here and there. As the group of woman stood around self consiously looking for a seat, I watched as the CEO of the RHS got up from her table, came over to the group, and helped sit each one herself. She even took the care to give up her own seat next to Sue Ellen for the queen of the detroit chapter!
It’s one thing to see a large group of middle-aged woman dressed in red and purple together in a hotel conference room, but when you spot a red hatter on the street, the group or individual certainly stands out. I came across the lady below who was just people watching from a Starbucks patio. I immediately knew I had to take the picture because it was my only opportunity to find a red hatter in public. And what a lovely scene it was…
At 1am I went up to the hotel bar with some of the RHS staff and came across this group of woman gathered around the bar. It was so wonderful to see this bar full of 20-somethings dressed in grays and blacks contrasted against a lively group of age 50+ women in red and purple! The red hatters were the life of the bar and probably all old enough to be the dull hipsters’ mothers!
There is much more that I could write on about the weekend, but like I noted at the beginning, it’s rather hard to process. I hope the pictures will do the justice to the diversity, the glamour, and the overall peculiar loveliness of the Red Hat Society. I would encourage you to watch THIS audio slide show about the RHS by a NYTimes photographer and read THIS well written Washington Post article with more history about the society.