Yesterday I chose a black skirt and a new red short-sleeved jacket to wear to church. I thought I would wear the red hat my mother-in-law gave me years ago; I love it but don’t have a lot of chance to wear it, and this seemed perfect. Then I remembered the Red Hat Society. I’d never heard of it till recently, when I discovered that several ladies in my church are part of it. They’re great women, always looking for ways to minister to others, especially younger women who need a friend or a meal or whatever.
But they wear red hats. And I began to wonder what others would think if I wore my red hat to church. I’m not a Red Hat lady, after all. Would members think I was flouting them somehow? Would others think I was flaunting a membership I don’t actually have? The Red Hat ladies don’t wear their red hats to church, you see; they reserve them to wear with their purple dresses in their meetings or when they explain the Society at retreats and so on. They are meant to symbolize eccentricity, and Southern ladies are not eccentric in church.
So I didn’t wear my red hat, which just a few years ago would have been merely a fashion choice but has suddenly become more than that: wearing it may send messages I don’t intend; not wearing it makes me a coward. Frustrating.
However, there’s a greater irony here. The Red Hat Society takes its name from a poem by Jenny Johnson called “Warning.” The first lines read “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” The speaker goes on to tell the other things she will do unconventionally to “make up for the sobriety of [her] youth,” such as spending her pension on “brandy and summer gloves,” “gobbl [ing] up samples in shops,” and “learn[ing] to spit.”
For now, she knows “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,” though she ends the poem pondering if she shouldn’t begin to practice her unconventionality a bit so that “people who know me are not too shocked and surprised / When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
In other words, it’s all about choosing to do those things that she enjoys without having to bow to the conventions of the culture. She knows she’s got to be at least mostly conventional now, while she has children and needs to be a responsible adult in raising them. But someday, she knows too, she will be free of that responsibility and intends to be “shocking” by doing or having some of those “silly” or “extravagant” things that appeal to her.
So . . . now we have a whole Society devoted to the convention of wearing red hats and purple dresses, and making me – whom red suits quite well, thank you – feel that I can’t make a personal fashion choice that I used to make without much thought. In other words, they’ve undermined the whole point.
People are really strange.
(And yes, I include myself. If I really believed anything I say I believe, I’d have worn that hat yesterday.)