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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 03:54 am

Girls gone wild

Shrinking violets, step aside: The Red Hat ladies have arrived

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Sue Ellen Cooper founded the Red Hat Society on the basis of a poem she stumbled across. The society celebrates a woman’s freedom to be eccentric.
PHOTO BY NICK KOON/KRT
A few years back, Octava Augspurger returned from her annual pilgrimage to the Sunshine State with more than a healthy tan. She arrived home with a plan — one that would involve a red-hot phenomenon, a flamboyant fashion statement, and her fun-loving friends in Lincoln, Ill. While dining out in Florida, Augspurger had seen a group of women wearing bright-purple outfits and red hats — a group that seemed to be all about fun. She had discovered the Red Hat Society. “I knew right away I wanted to start a chapter,” says Augspurger, and in May 2004 she did just that. Augspurger and 14 favorite friends became part of a sisterhood that is embracing, and redefining, aging for women. “We don’t think ‘old,’ ” says Augspurger. Nor does the group look it or act it, as member Margo Schwab will attest: “Sometimes we end up in a bar, dancing.”
The first order of business for Augspurger and her friends was deciding on a chapter name. “Red Hat Mamas” was quickly adopted as the most fitting moniker for the lively group. (The “Mamas” are one of about 10 Red Hat groups in Lincoln alone.) As the group’s founder, Augspurger was named “queen mother,” and, in June 2004, the Red Hat Mamas began a monthly tradition marked by friendship and fun. The fun comes in many forms: culinary, educational, cultural — and sometimes a combination thereof. Members take turns planning the group’s monthly outings, which are held on the last Thursday of each month, and make an extra effort to seek the unique. These ladies are connoisseurs of anything “interesting and different,” says Red Hat Mama Karen Miller, “and sophisticated,” she adds, tongue firmly in cheek. Outings have included a tour of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and the Executive Mansion in Springfield, Tanner’s Apple Orchard in Speer, Ill., and the Funk Prairie Home and Gem & Mineral Museum in the small town of Shirley. The group also enjoyed a “poker run” in Elmwood, for which 250 Red Hatters descended on the small town. These group activities help members expand their horizons and savor life’s pleasures, including camaraderie. “As part of this group, I’ve done things I would never have done on my own,” says Joann McCullough, who laughs as she adds: “We usually solve the world’s problems at our get-togethers.”
The Red Hat Mamas are part of a growing women’s movement that began inadvertently in November 1997 with a gift from one woman to another. To celebrate the 55th birthday of a dear friend, Sue Ellen Cooper gave her a scarlet fedora and a copy of the poem “Warning,” by British author Jenny Joseph. The poem begins “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me” and goes on to cite specific examples of fun, frivolous ways in which the author will “make up for the sobriety of my youth.”
The gift of a red hat became popular among Cooper’s circle of friends, and in April 1998 the Red Hat Society made its official debut when Cooper and five friends donned purple clothing and red hats for afternoon tea in public. The spirit of the group is based simply in fun and friendship, with a healthy dose of irreverence for acting one’s age. With a message that spoke to women everywhere, the Red Hat Society quickly became a cultural phenomenon. In seven short years, the Red Hat Society has grown to more than 41,000 chapters in the United States and more than 30 foreign countries. Members in every corner of the world — such as the BAH Bonnets in Bahrain and the Garter Girls in Ghana — regularly don crimson hats and passionately purple clothing to put a free-spirited spin on aging gracefully. Today, 1 million red-hat-wearing members are guided and inspired by the woman who started it all: Sue Ellen Cooper, now fondly (and lightheartedly) known as the “exalted queen mother.” The attraction of the Red Hat Society is not hard to grasp. After all, the group frowns on protocol and pretension, freeing its members to focus solely on fun. It is a welcome diversion for women 50 and older, many of whom have spent a good part of their lives caring for others. Despite its size, the Red Hat Society refuses to take itself too seriously, as the titles of the groups’ officers suggest. In addition to “queen mother,” some chapters have been known to name an “anti-parliamentarian,” the member who enforces the “no-rules” rule; or a “mistress of anxiety,” who is in charge of worrying about her fellow members’ problems, freeing up the other women to have fun. The kazoo — the society’s official musical instrument — and the clashing purple-and-red uniform also indicate a refreshing commitment to levity. Membership in the Red Hat Society is limited women who fall in the categories of fabulous and at least 50, but younger women who don’t want to miss out on the fun may join, or start, a Pink Hat chapter, donning lavender outfits and a paler version of the famous red hat. A self-described “disorganization,” the Red Hat Society rejects bylaws — although wearing a red hat and a clashing purple ensemble to all meetings is strongly encouraged. You aren’t likely to find Lincoln’s Red Hat Mamas without the recommended attire. “We have a wicked queen mother,” McCullough jokes. “She gets on us when we try to get by just wearing visors.”
The Red Hat Mamas did see fit to implement one informal rule for their chapter. “We don’t talk about families or illnesses,” says Augspurger. “We just want to relax and have fun.”
For those interested in starting a Red Hat group, Augspurger has one suggestion: “Make sure you have a compatible and fun group.” And don’t be afraid of garnering second glances while on a Red Hat outing. The Mamas say that the attention has all been positive. “People wave at us,” says Augspurger. “It’s so much fun.” Occasionally the special attention includes a discount when the ladies shop together on one of their outings. It’s not all been fun and games for the Red Hat Mamas, however; one of the group’s original members succumbed to cancer in August 2004. Though gravely ill, Mary Lou Fink had quickly embraced the spirit of the group, and she requested that her Red Hat sisters don their vibrant headdresses for her funeral. Schwab recalls with a chuckle, “After the service, the priest said he was going to mention us in the eulogy but decided that it was obvious who we were.”
These days, Fink is remembered fondly at each monthly outing as the Mamas down a toast to their fallen friend. The Bloody Mary — a favorite of Fink’s — is their signature drink. Memories of good times and the anticipation of more only strengthen the bond these Lincoln ladies share as they celebrate life in all its stages with flamboyance, freedom, and frivolity. “I look forward to every month,” says Augspurger. “I just love all the girls.”  
To learn more, visit www.redhatsociety.com.
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