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This started as a comment to readthisandweep's post here in… - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
This started as a comment to [personal profile] readthisandweep's post here in which she quoted a poem about growing old as a woman. No, not the one about wearing "purple with a red hat which doesn't go", a completely different poem. Anyway, the comment got a bit long and I thought it deserved its own post.

I quite liked the Jenny Joseph poem when I first came across it in the 1980s, but -- and I hate to say this because it makes me sound like an intellectual snob! -- it became too popular. What is more, some women in the US actually formed themselves into the Red Hat Society and met up to be loud and outrageous in groups, all wearing purple with red hats.

I mean, did they not read and understand the poem? How could they have so totally missed the point?

The poem is about longing for a day when the writer will no longer be constrained by the demands of her family, a day when she will be free to do her own thing and be eccentric and no longer have to worry about what people think. It is NOT about adopting a uniform and forming a society and conforming to a set of rules!

Interestingly, reading the poem again after listening to an item on Laurie Taylor's radio programme Thinking Allowed about the different attitudes working-class and middle-class women have to fashion, it could also be read as a desire to escape from middle-class respectability into (a perceived) working-class freedom to be outrageous. (If you want to listen, the fashion and class item starts at 1:40.) It hadn't really occurred to me before, but in the UK, class and fashion are inextricably linked. Dressing up to go out at night is something working class people do; middle-class people dress down.

Red hats got another mention on Radio 4 yesterday too on You And Yours. The item started out being about red shoes, prompted by the news that the Pope will give up wearing red shoes on his retirement. People had been emailing in with items about red shoes that had featured in their lives and it was pointed out that in the East End of London, red shoes (worn by a woman) were supposed to signify no knickers. Someone else emailed in to say that in the Midlands, it was a red hat that was supposed to signify no knickers, which led to great merriment at royal occasions when posh people were spotted wearing red hats. :)

[Cross-posted from Dreamwidth by way of a backup http://heleninwales.dreamwidth.org/87600.html. If you want to leave a comment, please use whichever site you find most convenient. Comments so far: comment count unavailable.]

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14 comments or Leave a comment
readthisandweep From: readthisandweep Date: February 28th, 2013 10:45 am (UTC) (Link)
My recollection of the response to a woman wearing a red hat is: 'Red hat, no drawers!' It may even have been my father who said that. Lol!

I heard the Woman's Hour strand on red shoes. I've never owned a pair myself - I'm not keen on red. It was considered 'provocative' by feminists back in the day - there was a suggestion that we ought not wear red because we would be pandering to our oppression by 'advertising' our availability.

Frankly, this argument left me cold. I just didn't like red! I still don't.

I'm all for a bit of intellectual snobbery! As I have said elsewhere, I consider the poems as two sides of a coin. I have no desire to behave 'disgracefully' as I grow older - not if it involves spitting, wearing horrid clothes, getting drunk & making a thorough nuisance of myself!

If I'm looking for examples of ways to embrace the freedom to 'be myself' I'd rather wear silk skirts, plant tall stones & make sure any little girls I may have a smidgeon of influence with, 'know who they are.' And it doesn't have to be as a Goddess woman. I don't preach to anyone about my spirituality - least of all to my granddaughters. In any case, they already like the idea of Mother Earth being in charge, so something's clearly rubbed off!

You have nailed it when you say those women who started the Red Hat Society missed the point. But in my world, so did Jenny Joseph. :)

(I'm wearing out my Helen Mirren icon - now there's a woman who knows about getting older with a bit of class!)
aellia From: aellia Date: February 28th, 2013 10:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Here it is "Red hat,no drawers".
I've noticed that it's acceptable for the middle classes to dress their children in what looks likes rags. And yet,if the children from the working class were dressed that way people would question the parent's ability to keep them clean and cared for.
I don't like the poem much now .
halfmoon_mollie From: halfmoon_mollie Date: February 28th, 2013 11:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I would never EVER tell you what to think but I want to differ with you about the interpretation of the red hat poem. And I agree with you, it's become too popular.

I learned that interpretation is a PERSONAL thing. If those silly women who formed the Red Hat Society feel it means they can be loud and silly (not all of them are, some of them actually do charity in my neck of the woods) then that's what it means to them. See...I've had a couple of people ask ME (authors, I mean) what such and such meant to ME, and when I said "Well,it sounds like it means *this*" they said, "Well, then, that's what it means." It's all subjective.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: March 2nd, 2013 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that the red hat poem has rather different connotations on each side of the Atlantic because the cultures are more different than we tend to think, despite sharing a common language. Though she always wore black rather than purple and red, Jenny Joseph's poem always reminds me of Grandma in the Giles cartoons.

Also, as you say, people will bring different things to a poem, depending on their own experiences and will thus take different meanings from it. I don't totally subscribe to the "everything is subjective, poems mean whatever the reader feels that they mean", but I know that I often read things quite differently now, compared to when I was younger. So it's bound to be the case that different people will interpret things differently.
houseboatonstyx From: houseboatonstyx Date: February 28th, 2013 12:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Urban vs rural?

But Jessica's is about things that are worth doing for their own sake, spending time and attention in them.

I met Jessica, she reallly does that sort of gardening stuff. (I wouldn't know about the dancing!) She gave me a wonderful one-card reading about fairies. She's lovely.
readthisandweep From: readthisandweep Date: February 28th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
That pleases me no end - I knew she must be lovely. :)
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: March 2nd, 2013 04:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't think it's necessarily urban vs rural. If anything rural people are the opposite of mystical, being very practical and down to earth. But I agree with your point about it being better to aspire to activities that are worth doing for their own sake. I don't think that eccentricity will magically appear in old age either. If you're eccentric, you'll show it throughout your life. :)
veronica_milvus From: veronica_milvus Date: February 28th, 2013 04:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
My agent is Jenny Joseph's agent. Apparently, Joseph now loathes the poem because nobody knows anything else she's done. And everybody expects her to be wearing purple, with a red hat that doesn't go.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: March 2nd, 2013 04:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wondered if that might be the case. I just had a look in the anthology of modern poetry I have (Staying Alive) to see if there was any of her poetry in it so I could see what else she had written.

There was just one poem.

You guessed! It was "Warning".
From: cmcmck Date: February 28th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fandom has a lot to answer for, it seems!
khiemtran From: khiemtran Date: February 28th, 2013 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Dressing up to go out at night is something working class people do; middle-class people dress down.

Interesting, I've never thought of it that way before...
cariadwen From: cariadwen Date: March 1st, 2013 11:45 am (UTC) (Link)
It's true enough. I was once invited to a meal with the people on the hill, our daughters had become friends. We were totally worried about what to wear, they had money, we didn't. We had no idea what kind of evening was in front of us. In the end we decided on our best stuff. When we got there they were in jeans and woolly jumpers. They hadn't dressed down though, it was what they normally wore. In fact if you saw them in the street you might think they very poor.

They are still some of the best people I know.
khiemtran From: khiemtran Date: March 2nd, 2013 09:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I was thinking recently about how there are very few social occasions left that I'll actually dress up for. Weddings, funerals, and that's about it really. I'll wear a collared shirt to the opera, but I don't actually need to - lots of people will just turn up in T-shirts and jeans. Of course, this is in Sydney, so standards may vary.. (in the region I live in, it's acceptable to drive a car or walk home from the train station wearing a swimming costume...)
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: March 2nd, 2013 04:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Having had a working class upbringing, I do miss the chance to dress up. As you say below, middle-class people do dress up for big events like weddings and graduations, but not just to go out for a drink or a meal with a few friends.

I assume it's due to the fact that working class people often do dirty jobs and/or wear uniforms or overalls all day at work. Dressing up to go out therefore is a chance to express their own personality and to show off. Middle-class people traditionally worked in the professions and wore suits to work, therefore they want to dress down to feel relaxed.
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