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"Give me a boa and some bling!": Red hat society members commanding visibility in the public sphere

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Embodied Resistance : Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules

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At seventy-four, Frances waits in her car in the parking lot outside the restaurant, feeling like a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl all over again. She sits looking around for her friends. With a new red pillbox hat on the seat beside her, she worries that no one else will show up in their signature Red Hat Society (RHS) dress-red hat, purple dress, sparkly jewelry, and feather boa. But slowly, the cars pull up and Frances spots her RHS friends. She sighs in relief as her first public outing with the "Red Hot Classy Ladies" is about to begin. She is at once excited and nervous. Finally, knowing that she is not alone, Frances steps out, red hat in hand. She makes eye contact with her friend Patty and, nearly in unison, they plop their hats on their heads and begin to giggle. When they enter the restaurant, people stare and make comments. Were they captivated by the bold purple outfits and red hats? Were they taken aback by older women who were not "acting their age"? Inside the restaurant lobby, the group's numbers swell. As they wait to be seated, a few restaurant patrons approach the group and ask, "What's this about?" "What are you dressed up for?" "Is this a kind of club or something?" A woman in her fifties or sixties wants to know how she can join the group. A middle-aged man taps Frances on the shoulder and says, "I wish my wife would do this." Some people, though, appear not to know what to make of Frances and her friends, especially when one of them wanders off from the group. Just before dessert, Frances excuses herself to use the restroom. On her way, she startles a young man of thirty-something. He looks at her and then immediately at his shoes. He seems embarrassed, but Frances keeps walking. When she turns back to look at him, she catches his eyes following her. He has a smirk across his face. Frances wonders what he is thinking. At the same time, she thinks, Being seventy-four means something different to me when I am with this group of women. With them, in my purple dress and red hat, I feel free to let myself go a little. Together, we are announcing to the world: We may be old in your eyes, but we don't write us off yet. We aren't gone. We can still have fun. Frances's account of her experiences, thoughts, and feelings as a neophyte Red Hatter represents the collective experiences of Red Hatters that emerged during our qualitative investigation. The concluding sentence is a direct quotation from one of our informants. In this chapter, we present the RHS as one way older women resist stereotypes of "old ladies." In so doing, we weave together research on women, aging, dress, and appearance with the accounts of Red Hatters we gathered through interviews and observations. © 2011 by Vanderbilt University Press. All rights reserved.


Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology


School of Applied Human Sciences

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