The Red Hat Society


The Queen: Phoenix Fillies


The Red Hat Society (RHS) is a social organization originally founded in 1998 in the United States for women aged 50 and beyond, but is now open to women of all ages. As of 2011, there are over 40 000 chapters in the United States and other countries. I had the opportunity to meet a lovely group of ladies from the RHS. The group had travelled from Essex to Somerset House, to see the Isabella Blow exhibition that finished in March 2014. Known as the red ‘hatters’ the ladies often have tea parties and their Queen, Phoenix Fillies, confirmed a taste for the eccentric. The founding hatter, artist Sue Ellen Cooper, initiated the RHS by quoting Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning,’ noting:

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”

There was something of the absurd, yet subtly brilliant, about the women’s appearance. Whilst they stood out as a group in Somerset House, each had adapted the colour combination of red and purple to create a range of interesting details that oscillated between being quite old fashioned and extremely modern, with details such as a tight seam or white tights set against red lipstick and red nails.

Each woman clearly took pride in their appearance and in belonging to the group. Their ‘Queen’, Phoenix Fillies, was forthcoming about the aims and benefits of the Red Hat Society. Their sense of belonging through colour invoked Jenifer Craik’s research on uniforms and can also be seen to relate to colour theory, demonstrating an outfit choice that resists insecurity and invisibility as older women. Pamela Church Gibson explores the disappointing tendency to become invisible as women get older. As opposed to an invisibility cloak, the red and purple clothes became the insignia of pride and presence. Visibly travelling around and enjoying interesting cultural days out, each woman took a deep-seated pride in her appearance. It was a pleasure to catch them on camera.

Craik, J. (1994) The Face of Fashion: cultural studies in fashion. London and New York: Routledge.

Church Gibson, P. (2000) ‘No one expects me anywhere’: invisible women, ageing and the fashion industry. Fashion Cultures: theories, explorations and analysis, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 79-90.