Mad hatters

The first rule of the Red Hat Society is that there are no rules. There are emphatic motifs. When a local chapter, the Delta Divas, commandeered the Holiday Inn on J and Third streets last weekend for its annual convention—they call it “Razzle Dazzle,” with a sort of procedural imperative akin to that of “shock and awe”—hundreds of like-attired over-50s from throughout California and some other states showed up. Old Sacramento obliged a sudden, spectacular migration; for a while there, it was nothing but plumage.

Of the headgear, only color was de rigueur: They came in cloche, cowboy, pillbox, porkpie, bonnet, bucket, beret, turban, tiara, derby, newsboy, sombrero and so on, each with varying degrees of sequined or feathered decoration—for self-expression’s sake, or what the ladies liked to call “hattitude.” Styles of shoe varied also, but mostly they were sensible.

On Saturday afternoon, in the downtime between a Champagne-primed river tour and dinner at the hotel, sales at Sparkles were expectedly brisk. “This is known as red-hat heaven,” owner Sue McGarity boasted, in a mellifluous Nottingham accent, of her boutique. “Half of my shop is probably red hats. I shop for them everywhere: New York, L.A. I gather.” A few ladies had expressed misgivings at Sparkles’ rate of inflation in recent years, but such is the trend-savvy retailer’s prerogative. McGarity, a Delta Diva herself, briefly squeezed past the doorway’s throng and watched from the boardwalk, her leonine features fixed in appraisal. “I’ll tell you, lovey,” she said, “you wouldn’t think you would have so much fun without a man being around.” Her mouth curled up at the corners.

The hatters’ constitution is Jenny Joseph’s 1961 poem, “Warning,” which begins declaratively: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” In 2000, on a lark, a Fullerton woman gathered a few aging friends and took those lines literally; in 2004 she wrote a best seller about it. In 2006, some 400,000 women worldwide have personalized the poet’s pledge to “make up for the sobriety of my youth.”

“People ask, ‘So, what do you do?’” the Delta Divas’ queen, Ellen Anderson, later said in the hotel ballroom. “I say, ‘We have fun.’ Tonight we’re going to have a gong show.” Anderson figured that would be fun because she once competed on The Gong Show. “I was a tapping tomato, juggling onions to ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,’” she recalled. “I was gonged, yes.” She wore her humongous red crown with impish poise. Of her coronation five years ago, she said, “I just elected myself.”

Ladies lined the nearby corridor, primping expectantly. A hotel receptionist confided that an impromptu burlesque event in the lobby the previous evening had brought her up short.

“See?” said the queen. “Now we’re not invisible anymore.”