Meet the Red Hat Nation

When British poet Jenny Joseph wrote the poem, “Warning,” she probably didn't imagine the phenomenon that has become the Fullerton, Calif. — based Red Hat Society. The speaker in the poem is a woman who celebrates her aging by wearing a purple dress and a red hat, drinking brandy, and making up for the temperance of youth.

Sue Ellen Cooper, founder and “Exalted Queen Mother” of the Red Hat Society, was so inspired by the poem that she decided to give her women friends a red hat on their 50th birthday as a rite of passage, explains Matthew Reekstin, vice president of finance, meeting planner, and Cooper's son-in-law. “The idea was to have fun with aging, to reach the plateau with fun and laughter rather than dread,” Reekstin explains.

Four years ago, a small society of 20 women was formed to do just that, and largely through word of mouth and some magazine articles, the group has grown like wildfire. Today, there are 25,000 chapters, primarily throughout the United States and Canada, and approximately 600,000 members, with chapters popping up around the world. “It's pretty much gone from a little family business to a big family business,” with 50 staff members, including a CMP, Reekstin says.

The first convention was in in 2002 in Chicago, where 425 women showed up in the uniform of the society: red hat and purple dress. This year, 2,500 people attended the “Red Hat Rodeo” at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center near Dallas. The convention featured a barbecue, a trip to a rodeo, guest speakers, and a performance of “Menopause, The Musical.” Red Hat gatherings are designed to be low on formality and high on fun, and are based each year on a theme, Reekstin says.

“Meals aren't just meals, they are events, like the pajama breakfast, the gospel brunch, or high tea. Hotels love having the group because they are so outgoing and colorful,” Reekstin says. “Other guests are always peeking in on their events out of curiosity.”

To attract the Red Hat Society, a destination must possess an important attribute: “It has to be a fun city, with an interesting draw,” Reekstin says. The 2005 event will be held in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand and has been dubbed “The Big Deal.”

“We pride ourselves on serving members and making them feel important,” he says. “It's really all about them.”