EXTRAVAGANT: Members of Whakatane’s Red Hat Society dressed for lunch at Spice Junction. Seated from left are Pauline Patterson, Mavis Coils, Noeline Swan, Shirley McGuinness, Heather Neale, Shirley Maynard, Lorraine Stock, Rosetta Griffin, Zoe Bradwell, and Queen Mother, Barbara Wells. The group’s characteristic combination of red hat and purple clothing is swapped around for a member whose birthday falls on the day of lunch, as in the case today. Photo Troy Baker D8111-02

EACH month the Queen Mother dons an elaborately decorated red hat and purple frock, completing the outfit with extravagant costume jewellery and perhaps a fantastic pair of shoes and a feather boa, often with elbow length gloves and a fabulous bag, or sometimes all of them all at once. She then heads out for lunch with like-minded friends.

She’ll likely be joined by Queen Bee and a number of other extravagantly named Eastern Bay women including Her Royal Highness Anastasia, Lady Arabella, Madam Puss, Lady Muck and the fabulously named Princess Preserved Peaches.

The 20-odd women who grace one restaurant or another monthly in all their finery are members of Whakatane’s Red Hat Society, an international social organisation that was founded in 1998 in America for women 50 years and beyond – ‘a playgroup for women created to connect like-minded women, make new friends, and enrich lives through the power of fun and friendship’.

In Whakatane’s case, the club was formed 12 years ago by Barbara Wells (aka the Queen Mother) after seeing a group of ‘Red Hatters’ out for lunch in Tauranga.

“It’s all about dressing up and having fun and socialising,” says Barbara, “and I thought I’d really like to have something like that here.”

Though unknown to many, The Red Hat Society has been in existence in Whakatane since 2007, meeting monthly for jovial, light-hearted lunches at ever-changing restaurants.

“In our case, we’re all mostly women who’ve been involved in charity work for years,” Barbara says. “It’s an opportunity to belong to an organisation where you don’t have to do anything. You’re not on the committee, you don’t need to take a donation and you don’t even need to bring a plate. There’s just the two rules. You need to enjoy dressing up, and you have to laugh and have fun.”

Queen Bee, Lorraine Stock, (so-named for her role as the club’s organiser, or worker) says in the Whakatane club aspiring members join when they turn 60 if there is a place open.

“Women 55 years and over can come, but as per the Red Hat Society tradition, they wear pink rather than red, and lavender rather than purple,” Lorraine says, earning the right to wear the Red Hat Society colours at age 60.

Unfortunately, she says membership to the Whakatane club is closed. “We need to keep membership around 20 or 21 because it gets too hard to fit into restaurants or to just work well as a group.” She says membership has always come through word of mouth and there are always people on a waiting list.

But according to the Red Hat Society, “if a woman wants to be queen of her own chapter, by all means, self-appoint.” In some towns several clubs (chapters) operate, with each club deciding what regular activities they want to enjoy.

Queen Mother and Queen Bee agree one of the best parts of being a Red Hatter is the fact that it makes people smile. “Not just us,” Margaret says, “but people who see us too.”

And if you look hard enough, you’ll often spot groups of red-hatted, purple frocked and generally outrageously dressed women at various events, the women say, with the

Melbourne Cup and big race days a typical example.

“It’s all just a bit of a giggle and lots of fun,” says Queen Bee. The Red Hat Society operates in countless countries across the world and has more than 70,000 members.

By Lorraine Wilson