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Red hats, purple dresses, feather boas — all signatures of the Red Hat Society. There is even a Queen Mother, Sue Ellen Cooper of Orange County, California, who founded the Society in 1998 after she hosted a fancy tea party for ladies decked out in purple and red. Since then, Cooper has written two best-sellers about her Society, which has spawned thousands of chapters of women with “hattitude” nationwide.

"When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / With a red hat . . . !"

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / With a red hat . . . !”

My sisters and I had our own Red Hat Lady, my plain Grandma Longenecker’s fancy cousin, Mame Goss, who brought picked-over hats of all colors to us from a millinery shop where she worked in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Getting hats from Mame was heady stuff! She was a main character in the script of our youthful play-acting.

Mame is one step closer to revealing the treasures in her bag now. Soon we lay eyes on the partly smashed trousseau of hats, left over from the spring season. We fight over who gets what, of course.

* * *

“Here’s a straw hat with a polka dot bow, “ I say but cast it aside. Janice and Jean don’t pick it up either. They are eying the red satin bows and lavender netting attached to other headgear.

* * *

“Hey, I want this one,” Janice and Jean tussle over a swoopy hat with pink flowers. Jean finally picks up a white thing that looks like an upside-down, flat-bottomed boat with a wad of blue tulle tied in a fluffy bow in the back. Janice’s is flat and round and dark, not my taste, with black-eyed Susan circling the straw hat. I get the best hat, I believe. It is flat and round too, but navy, and studded with azalea pink silk flowers around the edges. Best of all, I can pull a dark blue net over my face. Instantly, I become a woman of mystery and allure.

* * *

We take our newly-found treasures up to Grandma’s bedroom and indulge in more fantasy. The space between her marble-topped vanity and tall headboard becomes our runway. We take turns prancing in front of her vanity mirror with wavy glass, cocking our heads just so and smiling at our reflections.

One day Auntie Mame brings another batch of hats. When I spy the red felt with broad brim, I know it is mine. Our catwalk this time is not the narrow confines of Grandma’s bedroom, but the front lawn along Harrisburg Avenue: Marian, Janice, and Jean preen for the camera this time. Soon enough we will stuff our hair under a prayer veiling, but until then, we’re fancy girls!

Home movie from the 1950s

Do you remember playing dress up as a kid? What were your costumes? Inquiring minds want to hear your story. 

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