Greeting 50 with a grin

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Gone are the days when boys would put up "No girls allowed!" signs on their treehouse doors and girls would dress in their mother's fanciest clothes for tea parties. But some area women didn't really grow out of that dress-up stage, though they did grow up.

So the Red Hat Society is the place they feel most welcome since big hats, clunky jewelry and crazy outfits are part of the regular attire at gatherings. Members say the more glitz the better.

The Red Hat Society is a fast-growing movement of women who are finding a new way to embrace the aging process. Membership is open to all women but only those age 50 and older can wear the requisite red hats. Women younger than 50 are dubbed "pink hatters" and must wear pink hats and lavender until their "Reduation," or 50th birthday.

The attire for the club -- red hats and purple outfits -- is based on a poem called "Warning" by Jenny Joseph, in which she says "When I am old I shall wear purple; with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me."

More than 100 women, a collection of both red and pink hats atop their heads, gathered at the Branding Iron restaurant in Jackson on Tuesday for a meeting. They came from Jackson, Cape Girardeau, Dexter, Mo., Sikeston, Mo., and Advance, Mo.

Most of the chapters, or clubs, meet at least once a month and usually for a luncheon or meal out. The meetings are a chance to dress up and act crazy. The only rule of the Red Hat Society is that you wear red and purple. Beyond that, there's not much to worry about.

The idea is just to have fun and share a common bond -- a journey through the aging process.

"It's fun to go out with other people who enjoy doing the same things you do and be yourself," said Linda McDonough, a member of the Bootheel Babes in Sikeston.

Debbie Hatchell of Dexter came to her first meeting Tuesday after reading about the group in her local newspaper. She donned a pink hat because she's still a year away from the Big 5-0.

Kyra Taylor of Dexter said there's always a bond between the women, even if they're still in a pink hat. She hadn't been looking forward to her 50th birthday until joining the Red Jasmine Red Hat Society. "Now I'm looking forward to wearing purple and red," she said. "I've already bought my red hat."

When the seven chapters of women -- 109 of them in all -- gathered for a meal and short program by Hat Lady Jean Seres Tuesday, the restaurant was flooded with red.

Marlene Cloud, who organized the outing, said "You see Red Hatters everywhere anymore."

And when the group goes out en mass, they are a sight to see. She is a member of the Bootheel Babes and Queen Mother of the Red Hat Sparklers from Jackson. (Queen Mothers are often the chapter organizers.)

Restaurant staffers got a kick out of the women, but some had to ask what the group was all about. "We always get looks and people ask questions," Taylor said. "But if you saw us out with purple and red hats with a big grin on our faces, the only response would be a smile and big grin back."

And these women love to smile and have fun. Whether it's a lunch out or a trip to the local winery, these ladies like to laugh, talk and share stories about their lives.

Judy Burford of Burfordville always said she wanted to be part of the Red Hat Society so when she was asked to join a local group, she did. "We can't be serious all the time," she said. Since it was the month of her birthday, Burford got to switch the colors for her outfit; she wore a purple hat and red dress.

But the award for the most outlandish getup likely went to Hat Lady Jean Seres and her collection of crazy hats. Seres, who often talks to groups about her vintage hat collection, is herself a Red Hatter. She showed off some of her favorite hats Tuesday while telling stories and ridiculous jokes during the gathering.

She reminded the women that "age is a matter of the mind and if you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

That quip got cackles and hoots from the crowd.

Cloud, of the Red Hat Sparklers, said the Red Hat Society helps women greet their 50th birthday milestone with some gusto. "I don't feel 50 until I look in the mirror," she said. "It's my body that's betraying me. I'm still that little girl who liked to get all dressed up in my mother's clothes."

Southeast Missouri has registered Red Hat Society chapters in Advance, Cape Girardeau, Marble Hill, Dexter, Jackson, Kennett, Sikeston, Morley, Malden and Perryville. There are six chapters in Cape Girardeau, five in Sikeston and three in Jackson.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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