To Feel Young, All It Takes Is a Red Hat

Photo: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Many girls experiment with the type of woman they want to be. Jean Seberg in Breathless? Nora Ephron circa Heartburn? Lena Dunhan now? Despite this uncertainty, most know the kind of older woman they hope to be — one who doesn’t give a damn.

In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper founded the Red Hat Society, a network of women over 50 with a similar principle. “I was trying to play,” says Cooper. “I was trying to shake lose some feelings about what was supposedly happening to me as I was getting older.” Cooper purchased a red fedora at a local thrift store and uncharacteristically wore it to dinner one night. Encouraged by the sense of freedom she felt, she began giving red hats to her friends for their 50th birthdays. In fewer than five years, what began as two small organizations in southern California grew to more than 40,000 chapters worldwide. “It’s ironic, because just when we have a lot to say and a lot to do, people tend to look right through us,” Cooper says of older women. “We are just not willing to quietly go some place and knit.” By design, the standard costume of red hats, purple dresses, and loads of costume jewelry makes Red Hatters hard to ignore. 

Last spring, photographer Poon Amphaiwan went to Washington, D.C. for an annual conference of the Red Hat Society, where he documented the fake diamonds, glittery sashes, ostrich plumes, and battery-powered, candle-lined head coverings. At a ceremony, the original red hat and purple boa were donated to the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of American History; obviously, many women showed up covered in fake feathers. Reporter Katie Van Syckle caught up with the ladies, who participated as they explained their love of dress-up, bling, tea-parties, luncheons, and their membership in a society that’s changed their lives. Click ahead to hear their stories, plus get a look at some crazy hats.