Members of the Bodacious Belles of Holbrook, a chapter of...

Members of the Bodacious Belles of Holbrook, a chapter of the Red Hat Society, take time from their frills, furbelows and partying to pose for a picture. They are, from left, vice queen Libby Tripi, queen Louisa Fink-Lorito and vice queen Rosemary Fetherston. (March 24, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Casual observers may well think of Red Hatters as silly, self-indulgent ladies who lunch -- older women who might appear a bit eccentric.

Picture women of a certain age, parading around in vivid red hats and deep purple garb, accessorized with outré boas and wigs, oh my! But these ladies answer to a higher authority -- their own, their free-spirit antics prompting observers to smile and drivers to toot their horns and yell, "You go, girls."

"It's just innocent fun," says Louisa Fink-Lorito, a retired paralegal who is "Queen" (think president, with sparkles) of the Red Hat Society's Bodacious Belles chapter in Holbrook, one of an estimated 100 chapters on Long Island.

A social networking company that caters to women 50 and older, the society was founded in 1998 by Sue Ellen Cooper, a California artist and mother.

Two years after buying a brilliant red fedora at a thrift shop, Cooper read "Warning," a poem by Jenny Joseph. It begins:

"When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me."

Cooper gave a bright red hat and a copy of the poem to a friend for her birthday, and repeated the gifts to other friends. Soon, they all decided to have lunch in outfits that personified the poem, and the society was launched. It has since mushroomed to 41,000 chapters worldwide, each with 20 to 40 members.

Each chapter sets its own agenda for fulfilling the society's mission statement: "We are a global society of women that supports and encourages women in their pursuit of fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment, and fitness." Chapter members do that by attending shows, dining and traveling together.

"As a group, Red Hatters don't do charity work and we're well aware of criticism on that score," says Louise Virgilio, 70, a retired office manager, now Queen of the Crimson Chapeaux chapter in Albertson. (See more about Queens below.) "But many of us volunteer for public service on our own, like church outreach programs that do a lot of good for their communities."

The international organization has received a distinguished nod from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Cooper's first red hat and purple feather boa, donated by the Red Hat Society, recently were accepted for the archived collection of pop culture items. "It's an organization that encourages living life to its fullest," says museum director Brent D. Glass.

For some, the society is key to remaining social as they get older. "By welcoming mature . . . women into a vibrant, supportive group, the Red Hat Society helps its members to celebrate, rather than fear, the aging process," says Richard Murdocco, director of Community Medicine, Stony Brook University Medical Center.

"It made a real difference in my outlook when I joined after my husband died. I'd been so sad and lonely," says Janice Honahan, 66, of the Scarlett O'Hatter chapter in Lake Grove. "Now I have so many new friends and there's always something exciting going on." A favorite event was a recent trip to Graceland in Tennessee.

Fink-Lorito says each member in her 21-member chapter spends about $500 a year for activities that include luncheons, outings to estates, boat rides, matinees, bus trips, casinos and museums. Her chapter has two Vice Queens, Libby Tripi and Rosemary Fetherston.

Red Hatters met in Jericho for a Mardi Gras celebration. "It's a great ol' party, all that jazz and food and merriment," says Evelyn Strehel, 70, of Lake Ronkonkoma.

In an upcoming fashion show, members will prove that a limited color palette doesn't mean a limited imagination. Eighteen hatters will sashay down a runway clad in their favorite ensembles.

Mary Ann Smith, 68, of the Ruby Hatted Rascals chapter in East Meadow plans to model a sexy, $100 purple velvet, slit-skirted gown she wore in the Ms. New York Senior America Pageant last month. Her red straw hat is a nest of feathers and spangles she glued onto it, her purse a $15 yard sale find.

Following a trend to wear other colors, retired nurse Charlotte Dessert, 72, Queen of the North Shore Sweetheart Roses chapter in Smithtown, will don head-to-toe black, her hat a tower of glitter-tipped plumes. "When I saw that hat in a shop it said to me, 'Buy me and you will have great fun,' and I do," she says.

Part of the fun for many members is browsing in thrift shops and yard sales for "small-change" accessories, like scarves, jewelry and over-the-top glitzy outfits. But some spend more. Virgilio says clothing for Red Hat functions has set her back "thousands" in upscale boutiques.

"We've all earned the privilege of kicking up our heels a bit," says Virgilio. "We've spent years giving of ourselves to our children, our husbands, our communities. We've served on PTA committees, on soup kitchens, on charity fundraisers. We've worked to put our kids -- and sometimes our husbands -- through college, and now we're enjoying a reward that keeps us looking forward with pleasure."

How to join

 

Queens rule in the Red Hat Society. By paying $39 a year to "Hatquarters" in Fullerton, Calif., Queens control their chapters. Supporting members pay $20 a year.

To become a member, you must join the international organization online and pay the fee, then find a local chapter through the website, says marketing director Emily Yost.

Queens who start their own chapter determine whether they want to open it to everyone or include only a few friends. But events posted on the society's online calendars are open to all members, Yost says.

Click here to learn more about the society and how to join at redhatsociety.com.