Sue Ellen Cooper recalls that on a whim in November 1997, she bought an old red fedora at a thrift shop while visiting in Tucson, Ariz.
Not long after, she decided to give a similar red hat to a friend for her birthday, along with a copy of Jenny Joseph's poem, "Warning," which reflects on aging and the freedom it can bring.
Little did Mrs. Cooper know, her impulse buy soon would become a symbol of fun and friendship and spark what is now considered the largest women's social group in the world.
The Red Hat Society was formed April 25, 1998, when Mrs. Cooper, of Fullerton, Calif., and a group of five friends met for tea wearing purple clothes and red hats -- a combination described in the poem. That small gathering ignited a movement that now includes 80,000 members in 20,000 chapters and spans all 50 states and 30 countries.
"I was not trying to start a fire. I was trying to entertain myself and friends and do something to make our lives more fun," said Mrs. Cooper, Red Hat Society founder who uses the exaggerated title Exalted Queen Mother.
"We found out that it worked wonderfully, and we were having a great time. If my friends and I got that much fun out of it, then it shouldn't be that big [of] a surprise that so many other women did, too."
Members of the group, which she said is "hat-quartered" in Fullerton, pride themselves on having no rules, no minutes and no meetings. Dues are $20 a year, or $39 for those who "want to be queen" -- meaning they start their own chapter. Involvement ranges from joining a local chapter to simply relating to other women on message boards.
Membership in the society begins at age 50. But the group doesn't exclude younger women, or as Cyndi Lauper would call them: "Girls [who] just wanna have fun.'' Women 49 and younger may join; they are called "pink hatters" in the parlance of the organization and wear lavender clothing and pink hats.
When they turn 50, members go through "red-uation" and trade in their pale colors for the deeper, vibrant tones.
"Our goal is to enrich the lives of our future Red Hatters and ... to see that there's no discrimination," said Debra Granich, CEO and Queen Ladybug. "I feel like Red Hat Society is making a difference in the way the world perceives aging women."
While the organization is open to women of all ages, Mrs. Granich said it's not for everyone.
"We're for women who want to look at life in a positive way, who want to see the glass as half full and not half empty," she said. "These women want to be around other women who have that same attitude."
Their signature purple attire, paired with a red hat of each woman's choice, is a reminder to others that they're not done living yet and they're not invisible -- and it's a lot of fun, Mrs. Granich said.
She noted that the camaraderie in the society stirs up renewed confidence in women and reminds them that they still matter.
The group even holds conventions dedicated to laughter and play, with laughter therapists and presentations on how to bring laughter into women's lives.
"Play shouldn't be out of your vocabulary. You should be able to still have a great time," Mrs. Cooper said. "The sisterhood among women is a great resource for women, and so many of us have neglected that for our families and everything else that came first. We weren't upset that we had done all of those things, but we were thrilled to get back to some of the things we missed about girl time."
The signature red hat has become an icon of the sisterhood and, as a nod to the group's international influence, Mrs. Cooper's original red fedora and a purple boa were placed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., last year.
Emily Yost, marketing director for the Red Hat Society, said the placement is a fitting tribute to the organization and its goal to ensure that the legacy continues and will be available for generations of women as they turn 50.
"We are in the forever business," she said. "We need to ensure that women 100, 200 years from now, as they look at this hat behind glass in the Smithsonian, understand what the women over the last 14 years have done so gracefully and well."
Part of the Red Hat Society's success stems from its dynamic approach and refusal to remain stagnant. The original motto of fun and friendship has expanded to include freedom, fulfillment and fitness.
"We started with so much silliness, and we still prize that to a great degree, but there's so much more to it than that. It goes deeper and deeper," Mrs. Cooper said. "I think we uncovered the layers as time went on and we're proud to be part of it. A lot of women who have joined have helped us to think about ways to deepen this experience."
In a world of youth and beauty, Mrs. Granich said, she is often asked how the society survives; she answers that the group is a "celebration of aging."
"The society's attitude is that we're all going to get older, so let's enjoy the ride," she said. "We're not about anti-aging. We really want every member to feel comfortable in their own skin."
As for future goals, Mrs. Cooper said it's simple.
"We want to take over the world," she said with a chuckle. "What we mean is take over the world and change attitudes, change lives all for the better."
Local Red Hat Queen Cathie Shenefelt of McMurray is enjoying girl time with her chapter, called the Glitz and Glamour Girls, which she formed in October 2004. She had just retired from her job as an English teacher for Mt. Lebanon School District when the idea of starting a local Red Hat Society chapter crossed her mind. The idea soon took root after she bought a pair of purple shoes that had red hats on them.
What started as a group of seven has swelled to 60.
"I like that I started with a group of people I knew, but from there I met [more] people,'' she said.
She described her group as active, professional, caring, fun and inclusive.
"We know that we're not young, but I think we want to age gracefully and make it fun -- and not the alternative," Mrs. Shenefelt said.
Members stay connected through a monthly newsletter that she puts together and special interest groups she has formed, including card groups, a book club, a Bunco group and a lunch bunch.
They average one event a month in addition to regular meetings of the special interest groups, with most activities planned for weekends so working members can attend.
Red hats are encouraged to be worn when the Glitz and Glamour Girls go out in public, but Mrs. Shenefelt said members are welcome to wear a red bow or hair clip if that makes them more comfortable. She sports a big red hat she purchased in Nashville, Tenn.
"There's something called 'hat hair,' " she said. "So, do I frown on someone who doesn't have a hat? No."
She does, however, encourage the women to wear purple.
"I don't want to look like a group of older women who just happen to be out. I want to look like we belong together and choose to belong together," Mrs. Shenefelt said. "I'm proud of our group. We enjoy each other so much that I am glad to be out in public with the Glitz and Glamour Girls."
Fellow glamor girl Donna Rotoloni of McMurray is newly retired from her job as a family and consumer sciences teacher in Mt. Lebanon School District and said that even while working, she kept one foot in the Red Hat Society.
She feared she would lose touch with friends after she retired. Now, she said, she needed to stop working because she didn't have enough time to do all of the fun things the glamor girls plan.
"It's made me feel more secure about retiring because that's so new to me," she said. "I think it has given me a sense of security and comfort. As women, we do look for camaraderie in groups."
Longtime glamor friend Mary Ann McCloskey of Mt. Lebanon agreed that the group has enriched her life in many ways.
"I have met so many other people that I now call friends," she said. "It's not superficial. I know about them and I know about their families."
The poem, "Warning," was written by English poetess Jenny Joseph in 1961 and is included in her 1974 collection, "Rose In the Afternoon." It is available online. Details: www.redhatsociety.com.
Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.