Today is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of the Red Hat Society by members. In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper, an artist from Fullerton, California, bought an old red fedora for $7.50 from a thrift shop during a trip to Tucson, Arizona. When a good friend was nearing her 55th birthday, Cooper was inspired to buy her a red hat as a present by the Jenny Joseph poem, “Warning”, which begins “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” Cooper wanted to encourage her friend to grow older in a playful manner. She repeated the gift on request several times, and eventually several of the women bought purple outfits as well and held a tea party on April 25, 1998, at which the Red Hat Society began. The idea spread, first by word of mouth and then through the internet and publications, so that now there are over 20,000 chapters in the US and numerous others in 30 countries worldwide.
I came across a Red Hat Society function about 10 years ago in New York. They’re hard to miss. The members all had on very elaborately decorated red hats. At the time I had no clue what it was all about, but got the basic drift from the members at the event, and then looked it up afterwards on the internet. What I found most noticeable is that the aims of the Red Hat Society and Jenny Joseph’s poem are a little at odds with one another. Here’s the full poem:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
And say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!
Jenny Joseph wrote this poem in 1961 when she was approaching 30. I can see how Sue Ellen Cooper was inspired by the poem – especially the first lines – but what Jenny Joseph is proposing is rather different from what the Red Hat Society became. I think that’s just fine; the poem is not a constitution nor some kind of founding document in total. My general mantra is that if people are having fun (and they are not being insanely destructive), it’s none of my business what they are doing even if it is not to my taste. What I will say is that the poem and the society are a little at odds in their stated aims.
Jenny Joseph wrote “Warning” in the post-war years in England when life could be very drab. Rationing continued well into the 1950s and the country was trying to rebuild itself in the aftermath of absolute calamity. Conformity to certain ideals of “success” were very much the norm. Good job, nice house, smart clothes, thrifty lifestyle etc. were the hallmarks of the successful life, and Jenny Joseph found all of this rather dreary and confining. She wanted to break free, but knew she couldn’t. Instead she fantasized an old age liberated from the strictures of youth, modeled on eccentric old English women, of which there were, and are, an abundance. A mere 2 years ago I spent a fascinating afternoon with a friend of mine in the cottage of a comfortably well off old woman in Oxfordshire who chain smoked, drank whisky, and kept a pet sheep in her kitchen. Her house was an utter riot of random clutter. She had asked my friend to come over to help her with her lawn which was overgrown and choked with weeds and wildflowers, because she wanted to use it for some kind of dog show that I never fully understood.
Jenny Joseph is, in fact, an old lady these days (she was born in 1932), and I have no idea what she is up to now apart from reading poetry now and again. For a while she was a journalist in South Africa and then worked teaching ESL in London. She is certainly one of the most widely acclaimed living poets and has received numerous honors. I hope she is retired, but I wonder whether she spits, swears, and spends her pension on brandy and summer gloves. The point of the poem is to stress a desire to break free from the norms of society, but, of course, since 1961 things have changed enormously. There was the decade of the 1960s, to begin with, which turned so many (not all) social norms on their heads. Many people, men and women, stopped wearing hats, for example, and the general rules of everyday street wear went south. Were it not for the Red Hat Society, a woman wearing a purple dress and a red hat would go completely unnoticed these days
The Red Hat Society was inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, but its aims are hardly the same. First, the privilege of wearing a red hat begins at age 50, not the retirement age for women in England in the 1960s which was 60. That’s the kind of age Jenny Joseph was thinking of — or older. Sue Ellen Cooper was imagining something quite different in the US of the late 1990s. She was looking at what was expected of women in their 50s at that time and balking. It’s true that Joseph’s and Cooper’s underlying philosophy is the same – break the rules and have fun – but what breaking the rules looks like is rather different for each woman. The Red Hat Society is called a “dis-organization” but it looks pretty organized to me. Go to their website https://www.redhatsociety.com/ and you’ll find plenty of organization including a very extensive online store. Nonetheless, I imagine meetings for tea vary enormously from group to group. The thing is that I know full well as an anthropologist that every social rebellion, large or small, sooner or later gets codified and co-opted by the society it is rebelling against. If ONE old woman wears a red hat and a purple dress it could be considered eccentric; if tens of thousands of them do it, it’s another way of conforming. No matter; I’m sure the members have fun in their own way.
If you are going to break the rules, afternoon tea is a good place to start. I’ve talked about afternoon tea several times in my posts, including the annoying misuse of the term “high tea” for afternoon tea in North America. In England high tea (sometimes just referred to as “tea”) is a full meal, whereas afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches and little cakes, that was first popularized in Queen Victoria’s court as a stopgap between lunch at noon and dinner at 7. Regular working people (myself included) typically have a full meal after work, rather than having a tea time followed by a later dinner. In my family we referred to our evening meal as tea when I was growing up, and we had it at around 5 o’clock.
I suppose you could “eat three pounds of sausages at a go, Or only bread and pickle for a week” but Joseph’s more basic point is that you should eat what you want without respect for the standards of a healthy diet. When I was a schoolboy in England in the 1960s I was always the first home, and, because I was hungry I would often eat a tinned steak and kidney pudding plus toast and jam with clotted cream and some chocolate to tide me over until dinner time. Nowadays that would be a full meal for me, but when I was a teenager my stomach was bottomless.
So what are you going to have with your cup of tea this afternoon? Three pounds of sausages might be OK, or bread and pickles — or both. They would be unconventional enough for afternoon tea time. But your limit is your imagination. I’ll take steak and kidney pudding — only not tinned.