Meet the retired women who refuse to stay in, dress down and fade away

Alex Casey has lunch with The Red Hat Society in Auckland, a group of retired women who don’t give a hoot about growing old. 

It was honestly like Geoff’s Emporium threw up. An orgy of red tulle and faux fur, pearls, tiny top hats stapled onto larger top hats, diamantes, glitter and feathers. Whether intentional or not, Bevyn signified the start of festivities by immediately smashing her glass of wine, swinging her zimmer frame too-swiftly around a table’s edge. Her L plate made me think that perhaps you do need a licence to operate that kind of heavy machinery. “Now it’s a party!” one of the other ladies bellowed. Our photographer Joel, the only man present, scuttled away to find a dustpan.

This was The Red Hat Society of Auckland and these were the ladies who lunched and laughed and didn’t give a flaming feather boa about getting old and smashing glasses and walking away from them without ever, ever looking back. Periodically, they come together in public from their smaller suburban factions such as the Queen City Java Belles, the West Auckland Working Wenches, the Rangitoto Reds and the Waitemata Wonder Women. They wore costume jewellery rings up to their knuckles, drank wine before 12 and told jokes over huge plates of fish and chips.

They were the coolest people I had ever seen in my goddamn life.

The Hatters assemble. Photo: Joel Thomas.

There are about 600,000 chapters of older women just like this around the world, assembling in extravagant red and purple dress-ups to do, well, nothing in particular. The movement started in America in 1998, inspired by the poem ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph. “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” the opening verse reads, “With a red hat that doesn’t go.” She continues… “I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired, and gobble up samples in shops… wear terrible shirts and grow more fat, and eat three pounds of sausages at a go.” A dream situation, and one that the Red Hatters fully embrace whenever they have the chance.

“We just dress up, go out, have fun and eat lunch,” said Rosa, Queen of the Java Belles, when we met for coffee before I attended their Auckland luncheon event last year. “It’s something that hasn’t happened since ancient times when women would go out and have their Bacchanalian feasts.” There aren’t a lot of rules to join, but you must be over 50 to don the red hat. Any younger and you are a ‘Pinkie’ (aged 15-50, demarcated with pink clothing and a purple hat in public). There aren’t many Pinkies in Auckland right now. “Maybe that could be something you could organise?” Rosa suggested, sipping her latte and giving me a lot of very strong ideas.

Rosa. Photo: Joel Thomas

A week later in the desolate Alexandra Park restaurant, the pokie machines were humming under harsh fluro lights and the Red Hatters stuck out like a beautiful shimmering mirage. I felt very underdressed joining them for lunch, but I guess that’s the point. “It’s just like a costume for me,” Donna aka Queen Convivial Shopalot tells me from under her fluffy purple hat (it’s her birthday month so you reverse the colours, standard hatter protocol). “It’s a different persona. It’s a permission slip to be a little silly, a little outrageous.” She adjusted the red faux fur blanket draped glamorously around her shoulders. “It’s awesome.”

The other beauty of red hatting, as Donna put it, is that you don’t have to be “a rich old dame” to look the part. Her whole outfit cost $15, not counting the blanket. “I got some beautiful shoes the other day at the opshop, sequin purple pumps.” She leaned in like she was telling me a secret. “Six dollars.” Each elaborate ensemble is paired with an equally elaborate moniker. There’s a Lady Spoonbill who plays the spoons. Lady Flow-Along, who famously just goes with the flow. Queen Ruby Seymour is Keeper of the Royal Monocle. When someone inevitably forgets their glasses at lunch and can’t read the menu, Ruby’s got the spare specs.

“She’s the Queen, she’s the Vice Queen, and I’m the Queen of Vice,” said 88 year-old Jan, pointing around the table. “I’m usually the one who gets arrested.”

Jan: Queen of Vice. Photo: Joel Thomas

There are no “dutiful grannies” allowed when Hatters be hatting. “We don’t want the granny talk,” said Rosa. “Nobody talks about their children or their grandchildren, we just talk about movies, sometimes politics, whatever else.” For an hour, an afternoon, or sometimes a weekend, the only task at hand is to have fun and not worry about anyone else. “Women’s groups have always had some kind of fundraising or charitable element to them, whether it’s the church or the PTA or a political party,” Rosa explained. “It’s outrageous, isn’t it, to have old ladies go outside and enjoy themselves for no reason.”

Most of the women in Rosa’s Red Hat group have spent decades being schoolteachers and nurses. “They’ve lived their whole lives serving other people, and look at them now.” She gestured around at the sea of sequins, coloured fake fur and the kind of howling laughter that would make Alan Duff’s ears fold up like intricate origami. “For me, it’s about reclaiming my identity,” Donna told me outside, dragging on her cigarette. “You’ve been a mother, you’ve done the school lunches and all the committees, you’ve been the grandmother, now it’s about you.”

I shared some chips with Valda and Jan, who felt the same way. “A lot of people think that once a woman has had her children and is living on her own, she should just vegetate,” said Valda. “Her role is finished. She’s brought up the family, she’s washed the husband’s socks, she should just curl up in the corner and do nothing now.” “Here here,” said Jan. “We do the complete opposite: we go out.” Jan, 88, worked as a showgirl in her 20s, dancing onstage at the Civic and cavorting around Western Springs in a black lace ostrich costume and bare feet.

The hatters take Alexandra Park. Photo: Joel Thomas.

There was no shortage of good backstories just like Jan’s. Valda made lampshades all her life until she retired. One of their regulars was unable to attend because she had gone to Nairobi to see the white giraffes. Rosa studied ancient Egypt as a mature student and took up amateur astronomy until recently when she started seeing two moons.

The oldest member in the Auckland chapter of The Red Hat Society is the 90-year-old Dame Dory of the Red Bay Ewes. She couldn’t make it to the luncheon but I was regaled with stories of her infamous debauchery. When the Ewes go on tour, Dame Dory is always the last to go to bed. “We got together two months ago at the Massey archery club, and Dame Dory picked up a bow and arrow and fired at a man-shaped target on the wall,” Jan told me. “The first one went through his heart, the second through his mouth. We were scared to give her a third one!” The whole table erupted.

Red hatting is also about forging new friendships, a task which feels increasingly difficult for people of any age, but particularly those later in life. “As you get older, it’s harder to meet people,” says Margaret aka the Dower Duchess of Dukesberry. “I’ve just turned 80 and recently I’ve lost three of my closest friends.” It’s not unusual for Red Hatters to dress up in their full garb to attend the funerals of loved ones. “We were all dolled up with all our bling, and a lady came up to me and said ‘oh, Red Hatters! How can I join?’” said Valda, “That’s the only recruit we’ve had from a funeral.”

“We’ll be getting them from the other side if we’re not careful,” said Jan, simply refusing to miss a single opportunity to bust out a joke.

Donna addresses the room. Photo: Joel Thomas

Donna, aka Queen Convivial Shopalot, joined The Red Hatters when a brain tumour left her unable to work. “The first group were a little sedate for me,” she said, tapping the ash off her cigarette, “so I set up my own.” Her new group in West Auckland do frequent sleepovers, art deco trips to Napier, the beach hop in Whangamata and the odd spot of go-karting, just because. “I just love how I’ve seen my ladies grow; I have a lot of widows and a lot of divorced ladies. The friendship and support are so heartwarming, we’ve all become very close.” She pushed up her sleeve to reveal a large tattoo of a red hat on her forearm. “This is my gang patch.”

The wine was drying up, and things were getting philosophical as lunch came to an end. With decades under their bejewelled belts, I wanted to squeeze all the wisdom I could from this extraordinary group of women before I had to leave Oz and to go back to Kansas aka the office. “Always be positive and remember that nothing lasts forever,” Vice Queen Valda told me sincerely. “Make the most of your life while you’ve got it. Love your friends and love your family because you just don’t know how long people are going to be here.” A woman wearing a feather boa leaned over, “And get off your phone. Shut it down. Life’s short.” I never got her name.

“It’s a very tired and often used one,” said Donna, “but life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Enjoy every minute that you can, because not all of you are going to make it.” I stared past her swirling cigarette smoke and into the immediate, beckoning void. “You don’t know what’s in store, you don’t know how long you’ll be here.” In the carpark, a swarm of tourists gathered around Donna’s parked van, admiring the glittery hearts stuck all over the hubcaps and the giant “hatmobile” banner in the window. She wants to get eyelashes for the headlights but is yet to find any that fit properly.

The hatters be hatting. Photo: Joel Thomas

“You know, I see so many people around who put off doing all the fun things until they retire, and either die before they get there or die not long after,” Donna continued, thoughtfully alternating between sips of Diet Coke and puffs of Malboro’s finest. “So I would say don’t save up all your fun time for when you’re done working, otherwise it’ll be too bloody late, mate. You’ll be old or dead, and what would you have you missed on the way?”

I was urgently booking a tattoo and a skydive, the walls gently closing in around me, when Queen Rosa sat down to answer the very same question. “The things that you imagine you’d be able to do like travelling and having lunch when you’re old aren’t a problem, it’s the other things. The toilet will break, the roof blows off. Make provisions but don’t plan everything too hard.” Rosa stared into the middle distance and suddenly remembered something. “Oh! I know the best piece of advice I can give you.”

“Remember about your teeth. My god, unbelievable. I never factored in my teeth.”


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