Cynthia Houck was out with her friends one day — they’d had lunch and were enjoying an afternoon of antiquing — when they encountered an outspoken stranger.



          “We walked in, and we all had our feather boas on,” Houck says. “And I heard some woman say: ‘Oh my God!’”



          It’s a reaction Houck and her friends are used to. In fact, Houck says, they’ve been taken for worse than just a bunch of crazy ladies.



“Somebody thought we were prostitutes once,” she says with a laugh.



          Why would women subject themselves to this kind of public abuse?



“We don’t care,” Houck says. “The best part of red hatting is going out and watching people watch you. It’s fun to watch the reactions.”



          Just what prompts these reactions? Houck and her friends make up the members of the Dallas-based Red Hat Society. As Red Hatters, they wear purple clothing and red hats — the more outlandish the better — when they get together.



          The other thing they have in common is their age: They are all 50 years and older.



          Four years ago, two women in California started the Red Hat Society. Sue Ellen Cooper gave her friend, Linda Murphy, a red hat and a copy of a poem by Jenny Joseph entitled “Warning,” about getting older and wearing purple.



          According to Red Hat legend, the gift was received with such enthusiasm that Cooper soon gave similar gifts to more of her friends. The women began wearing their “regalia,” as it’s now known, out in public and, just that simply, the first chapter of the Red Hat Society was born.  



          What’s amazing is the wildfire-like rapidity with which the group has spread. There are now more than 16,000 chapters, totaling nearly 300,000 members. There are Red Hatters in every state and about 20 different countries. In Dallas alone, there are more than 20 chapters. In fact, Dallas members will be getting “all doodled up” — as Houck puts it — this month, as the third annual national RHS convention meets in Grapevine April 14-18.



          What has made this group so popular with the over-50 crowd?



          “There is something about the whole concept that really appeals to older women who have spent their whole lives taking care of other people,” says Houck, who started her chapter, The Big D Re-Gals, and as founder is known as the Queen Mother.



“Most of us have raised kids, devoted our lives to our family, had jobs and done a lot of volunteer work for our churches and different charities.



“This is just for us. There’s no rules, no organization, just fun.”



          It’s also an opportunity, says fellow Re-Gals member Jo Ann Hayes, to break the mold of what people expect of women over a certain age.



          “ We’re not sticks in the mud, and we’re not boring,” she says. “Being a Red Hatter is a chance to get out of the house and do something that’s crazy and not get in any trouble. It’s not like we’re bar hopping or anything.”



          Well, not the Re-Gals chapter anyway. There are chapters that dabble a bit on the wilder side: Houck went to a Dallas RHS slumber party that hosted an Elvis impersonator, and says some of the ladies went a bit wild. “I think they scared Elvis,” she says, laughing.



          The Re-Gals are into mellower activities: having tea, going to the Arboretum and taking in the occasional play during their monthly meetings. They also love to shop, and their shopping sprees usually involve buying more purple clothing and red hats.



          “Oh my Lord, I don’t know,” says Houck when asked how many red hats she owns, but then sheepishly admits: “I think I have about 30 now.”



In fact, the regalia is a big part of the fun, as members try to continually come up with new purple-and-red combinations. 



          “We just try to be as silly as we can. Wearing jewelry ’til we fall over and just having a good time,” says Houck, whose nickname in her society is Queen Sparkle Plenty, for the amount of jewels she’ll put on (another member is called the Goddess of Glitz).



          But, though the main objective is to have fun, there’s another, more serious side to the Red Hat Society as well, Houck says. 



          “It’s seems real frivolous, but it’s become quite a sisterhood. There are women who come on the [web site’s] bulletin board and share stories, give advice.”



          Hayes knows a little something about that kind of support firsthand. Just two weeks after she joined the Re-Gals about a year ago, she found out she had breast cancer.



“It was quite a shock,” says Hayes, who has now recovered. “But they were all very emotionally supportive, with cards and phone calls. They were always there.



          “Most red hatters that you meet, you feel like it’s somebody you already know,” Houck says. “There’s a camaraderie there. It celebrates getting older. Instead of being afraid of it, it’s something to look forward to.”