The American History Museum Gets a Red Hat

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"When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me."

- "Warning," a poem by Jenny Joseph

When Sue Ellen Cooper of Tucson, Arizona, first read this line of poetry, she connected with it. She had a bright red fedora of her own, which she had purchased at a local thrift shop, and appreciated the poem's message: have fun growing old. Cooper gave a red hat and a copy of the poem to a friend for her birthday. She gave the same to other friends, and soon enough it became her signature gift.

A clan of red hatters formed and to cement their sisterhood, they gathered, in 1998, for a tea party in Fullerton, California. They even wore purple dresses to bring Jenny Joseph's poem fully to life. The group formally became the Red Hat Society, with Cooper crowned its "Exalted Queen Mother."

Since then, the society's mission to create a network of women approaching 50 years of age and beyond that enjoy each other's companionship and shared love of having fun has struck a chord with thousands of women. In just five years, more than 40,000 chapters have sprung up worldwide.

The Red Hat Society recently donated Cooper's original red fedora and a purple-feather boa to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "We collect a lot of community-related objects. One of the things that is very interesting to us is that there are very few societies or organizations that actually are being started now that we can monitor and be involved with and know about. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have started and they're proceeding. The YWCA and YMCA are started and proceeding," says Nancy Davis, curator of the museum's division of home and community life."But the Red Hat Society is in its nascent stages. We were interested in following up and finding out a little bit more about this group and understanding the way in which it functions."

Davis plans on interviewing Sue Ellen Cooper in mid-September so that the museum has an oral history of how she turned this whimsical group of red hatters into a professional organization and how she envisions the Red Hat Society changing in the future. At this point, there is no set plan for displaying the hat and boa, which is fairly typical given that the museum is constantly collecting artifacts.

"We collect contemporary material that speaks to people's interests today," says Davis. The red fedora and purple boa join other items, everything from Lance Armstrong Live Strong bracelets to an Escaramuza outfit, that people are compelled to wear because they express an affinity for an organization or cause.