Thursday, March 29, 2007

But I Had on a Red Dress and No Hat


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which 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'm 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 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 beermats 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 must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice 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

I love to read fiction but I've never read much poetry. That doesn't mean that poetry can't move me - I can remember at least twice in my life being moved to tears by poems that caught me unawares (seems like there's a lot of unexpected tears in my life lately, maybe I should invest in some nice handkerchiefs; I hate tissue dust in my eyes).

Back in the early nineties someone read to me the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph. I thought it was perfectly lovely at that time and I could see myself, maybe not in read and purple but in blue and orange or orange and green or some other god awful combination with a wine glass in one hand and pulling my oxygen tank with the other.

It always takes my daughter to make me do things I said I would never do and this weekend I broke my word by stepping one foot into the Slave Freedom Center. Her girl's group from church took an outing to see a play called Shakin' the Mess Out of Misery,a coming of age story about a girl raised by several women after her mother abandons her.

The play was very good, the actresses even better (it was an all female cast) and I recommend seeing it if you get a chance. Seems like it’s pretty popular these days and just googling the name nearly guarantees it's being performed at a theatre company near you.

As we stood waiting to enter the theater lobby, first one, then two then several women dressed in every version of purple and red you can think of came into the lobby. Most were in purple dresses or dress suits and church hats, but a few had on red with purple accessories; others were in pants suit. One lady had on a purple velvet tracksuit and a red baseball hat.

And they were all African American. Now I'd seen groups of white women Red Hatters everywhere but I'd never seen any black women in their ranks. I always figured that one day I would probably be the only black woman wandering around in a purple dress and red hat and either a) getting stared at by a bunch of angry white women, b) getting invited to join some congenial white women or c) starting a group of women on my own, black, white and otherwise. Well turns out I don't have to do any of the above. There are Red Hat Societies simply everywhere in all shapes, colors and sizes.

The women all looked wonderful and again, I felt that longing to be just a little freer, a little wiser and maybe even a little older. I even had on a red dress that day. Maybe that's why they let me take their pictures when I asked.

When I searched for the poem, I found a blog post at Time Goes By that takes real issue with Red Hat Societies for doing the exact opposite of the poem. The author of the blog, Ronni Bennett, certainly knows what she's talking about. Her "About" page is to die for and she has multiple years experience in media and especially as a blogger regarding societal elder issues.

In her article about the Red Hat Society she states:
There are now 400,000 members of The Red Hat Society worldwide in 20,000 chapters, and it is reported that the number of chapters is growing at a rate of almost 400 a week.

The idea of this group is that when members – who use such adjectives as “sassy,” “free-spirited” and “convention-spurning” to describe themselves - get together, they wear - all of them - a red hat and a purple dress. The genesis of this is a poem The Red Hat Society founder discovered a few years before her 50th birthday.

Given my position about older folks on this Weblog, I should welcome and applaud this club. From what members say about it, the group seems to provide them with a sense of empowerment for two often-devalued groups – women and older people. So I ask again, what’s my problem?

One thing is that I’m embarrassed for folks who describe themselves as sassy, free-spirited and convention-spurning. Like nicknames, these designations have weight only if bestowed by others, and people who really are eccentric enough to be so described are, I suspect, far fewer in number than almost half a million.

For another, I don’t see how wearing the same dress and hat as every other woman in the Society is a whole lot different from the men I see in matching suits standing four deep at the bar at Grand Central Station every evening after work. It seems, again, to miss the spirit of Ms. Joseph’s poem.

I think I can forgive this commercialization more easily than some of the comments following Ms. Bennett's post that seems really down on the Red Hats. It's not always easy for older women to make new friends and socialize. The friends of your youth may be scattered or gone; families may be scarce or simply uncaring; you may find yourself alone or in a new place and maybe need a friend. The poem, to me isn't just about nonconformity but also about how aging can be a very lonely and misunderstood experience. Younger people may try to pigeonhole older women into a stereotyped “little old lady” mode that just doesn’t fit or maybe just ignore older people all together.

Some of the comments after the Time Goes By post make it seem as if some societies may have formed Red Hat Gestapos but there are several posts that affirm Red Hat Socities as a group that’s all about friendship and weathering aging together. I've also learned enough about life to know that what people feel like on the inside may not be how they act on the outside. The poem is also about a women who went through her youth being to wise to be foolish and now maybe wishes she had been. I can easily believe that half a million woman would like to be able to show a little sassy foolishness now and again.

I found the Red Hat Society women lovely to talk to and their cheerful red outfits of red of purple were like a banner waving. We are old(er), we are together, we are friends.

I hope I’m that blessed when I am a old.


  1. My take on the Red Hat Society is based on how they have mis-interpreted Jenny Joseph's poem which is a song to non-comformity, to relaxing into one's own self in old age, to being who you are.

    The Red Hatters appear to me to be quite the opposite, having latched onto that one line about color of clothing.

    Other than that, I suppose they are harmless. Love your photo of the four women in the distance. And thank your for the shout out.

  2. Have to agree with Ronni on this one...Warning is so much about being who you want to be and being unconventional...not about wearing a red hat or purple....sigh.


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