From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Hats Off to Serendipity!

I never knew her first name. She always wore the same outfit—a lavender blue dress covered in white polka dots and a red straw hat with a cluster of cherries pinned to the ribbon that encircled its crown. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and her blue eyes sparkled with life. I can’t remember the sound of her voice either, though we spoke to each other often.

It never crossed my mind to ask where she went when she was not with me; she must have had a home, and probably other friends. Like all small children, I thought I was the center of the universe and certainly thought I was the center of hers. She was very good about showing up when I needed companionship and always went along with my ideas.

Her name was Mrs. Silkins. Although she was an adult and I was a child, we were exactly the same size. She, of course, had the generously rounded curves of a middle-aged woman, while I had the skinny arms and legs of a gawky, rather sickly child. But none of these things mattered. We were the best of friends.

When I was around six years old, I discovered Mrs. Silkins had never existed. Sitting at the kitchen table and watching my mother chop vegetables, I casually said that it had been a while since I had seen Mrs. Silkins. Her head came up in surprise, her eyebrows raised. She said, “Don’t you know that she was all in your head?” I sat, with my mouth agape, as my mother explained the concept of imaginary playmates. I suppose I must have known all along my beloved friend wasn’t real, but I had fiercely believed in her. I was deeply saddened to hear the truth; since Mrs. Silkins had never existed, I knew that I would never see her again.

But I wasn’t done with fantasy and make-believe and all the wonderful things associated with my vivid imagination. As a young adult, I discovered C. S. Lewis’s fantastic allegories, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and ending with That Hideous Strength. An idealized version of “what might be” was always more compelling to me than what actually was. And when I was truly grown up, I enjoyed the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia right along with my children.

I always sought out the whimsical, the beautiful and the fantastic throughout my life. After finishing college, I enrolled in art classes where I was drawn to illustration, particularly the type found in old children’s books. In this genre, subjects were idealized and made more beautiful than in reality, the world was always sunny and safe, and dreams always came true. In the years following, as a greeting card illustrator and muralist, I enjoyed making “pretty pictures” and creating an idealized world—on walls, as well as on paper.

In the fall of 1997, I followed my instincts for the fanciful. I found a wonderfully bright red fedora in an Arizona thrift store. Though I don’t remember thinking of Mrs. Silkins that day, it seems likely that, subconsciously at least, my warm memories of her red hat influenced me. I just had to have this hat—but secretly worrying what people would think if I wore it—and I recalled a poem entitled “Warning” by Jenny Joseph. The poem talked about the feelings of a mature woman, a woman who didn’t care what she wore, what she did and what people would think of her for doing such outlandish things.

Determined to be that woman, I purchased the hat and proudly wore it out of the store. Sure, it didn’t match what I was wearing, but I reveled in playing dress-up once again, but this time at age fifty-something!

Well, to make a long story short, I loved dressing up and playing make-believe again so much that I started giving fanciful and elaborate red hats and a copy of the poem to my fifty-something friends. Then one day, we decided to go to tea, wearing our red hats and donning royal purple clothes. We had an amazing time, and giggling like schoolgirls, we bestowed regal names to each of us, with me becoming the “Exalted Queen Mother.”

Less than eight years later, I am the official Exalted Queen Mother of the Red Hat Society, a self-proclaimed “disorganization” with over forty thousand chapters in the United States and thirty-one countries worldwide. Its members—1 million strong—consciously choose to venture out in public wearing brightly colored, rather silly, purple outfits and red hats (or in the case of women under the age of fifty, lavender outfits and pink hats), rediscovering the joys of play and life. Certainly we acknowledge that we’re growing older, and that isn’t always fun, but we have chosen to emphasize the positive changes that aging brings.

I find it hard to see myself as an entrepreneur, but I guess the moniker is fitting; I saw the opportunity to pass along my love for the positive things in life, to follow my instincts and to remain true to my values. And I believe that the seed of the Red Hat Society was planted a long time ago; this notion was recently confirmed by Mr. John Harney of Harney & Sons Tea, one of the licensees whose support sustains the Red Hat Society. In a recent talk about tea, he happened to mention that his company has begun using a new, improved fabric for fashioning tea bags—a mixture of silk and linen.

Would you believe that it is called “Silk-en”?

Sue Ellen Cooper
Exalted Queen Mother

EPILOGUE: As the Red Hat Society continues to grow, its staff serves the membership from a home office, dubbed the “Hatquarters,” in Fullerton, California. The enterprise is supported by yearly chapter membership fees and by the sale of licensed, logo-bearing products, such as clothing, jewelry and housewares. It hosts international and regional conventions and cruises for its members and actively seeks venues and ideas to support its mission of fun and sisterhood for all women. Its Web site offers connections and information and is updated regularly with new ideas for having fun and making new friends.

Sue Ellen Cooper has written two books about the Red Hat Society: The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty and The Red Hat Society’s Laugh Lines: Tales of Inspiration and Hattitude, both published by Warner Books. Designer Scrapbooks: The Red Hat Society Way was recently published by Sterling, with a book about hats to follow. Red Hat Society romance novels (from Warner) will soon debut, and Red Hat Society LifeStyle, a bimonthly magazine, is available by subscription.

For more information, please visit www.redhatsociety.com.

Dahlynn McKowen

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