Ladies, grab your coat and get your Red Hat
Edna Kohn strutted confidently down the center of the room to the tune “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” She twirled in place, showing off her smart maroon pants suit to the ladies in the audience who beamed with approval.
Like Kohn, most of the women at the March 7 event topped their silver curls with wide-brimmed red hats worn at a rakish angle.
The first fashion show by the Shayna Punims, a Red Hat Society chapter based at Jewish Home for the Aging’s (JHA) Eisenberg Village campus, gave former models an excuse to come out of retirement and provided nervous novices an opportunity to shine among their peers.
“I’ve been an introvert all my life,” Kohn said, “and at 89 years I’m blossoming into an extrovert.”
The 75 members of the Shayna Punim chapter, who comprise about half of the healthy female residents on the Eisenberg campus, are decades older than 50, but they haven’t lost their zest for living.
Several times a year, the circle of friends trot out their splashiest red-and-purple duds to enjoy an afternoon of tea, cookies and unapologetic merriment.
Sue May, a retired art teacher, says the society gives her the opportunity “just to feel like a girl again. Nobody makes fun of us if we do.”
In addition to the Shayna Punims, JHA’s Grancell Village campus has its own Red Hatters, who’ve dubbed themselves the Red Hat Mamas.
The Red Hat Society, founded in 1998 in Orange County, is a loosely structured international organization dedicated to fun and frivolity for women over the age of 50.
The original inspiration for the society came from the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, which depicts an older woman in purple clothing with a red hat. Founder Sue Ellen Cooper — who goes by the title Exalted Queen Mother — started giving out copies of the poem with red hats as gifts to friends, and before long a social group was born in 1998.
Today there are nearly 40,000 Red Hat Society groups worldwide, with each chapter averaging 20 to 25 members, according to the group’s statistics.
Shayna Punims’ matron saint and organizer is Gerrie Wormser, a Hollywood casting director who volunteers countless hours at the Jewish Home, where her mother was once a board-and-care resident.
It was Wormser who got the idea for the Shayna Punim chapter, which formed in 2005. She persuaded the San Diego Hat Company to donate 100 red raffia hats adorned with flashy purple flowers, and charged each potential member $1 to join.
Wormser has arranged tea parties and outings since the group began. Because the performance of a belly dancer at a previous event raised hackles among the membership, she was particularly anxious that the fashion show should go smoothly.
“I wanted it to look elegant, I wanted it to look classy … either done well, or not at all,” she said.
Models’ outfits were carefully chosen from the JHA’s own fashion boutique to flatter their figures. Over the course of four practice sessions, they were coached in modeling techniques: how to walk with confidence, how to pirouette to show off a flared skirt, how to drape a jacket casually over one shoulder.
Wormser even chose the most dapper of the male JHA residents to escort her ladies onto the floor.
Three hours before the Zuckerman Boardroom doors were flung open, the models gathered in the JHA beauty salon for a professional makeup session.
Valerie Harvey of Neiman Marcus was one of several cosmetics experts who offered their services.
“I’m happy to help. These ladies are beautiful,” she said.
Among the models enjoying the pampering were two who could boast brief modeling careers.
When Hilda Foodman was a teenager, she modeled junior petite fashions in New York’s garment district. But at 89 she now uses a walker to get around Eisenberg Village and is well aware she’s not the young girl she once was.
While she was getting ready, Foodman asked makeup artist Sylvie Hartmann: “How would you like to come back every day to do this?”
Sandy Wisner, a JHA resident for the past six months, once modeled sportswear for the Sears mail-order catalogue. At 81 she’s one of the babies in this group, but she confessed that looking in the mirror had become a daily challenge.
However, she has faced it with spirit by telling herself, “You’re an old lady, and you look OK for an old lady.”
Red and purple balloon bouquets transformed the boardroom into a festive hall. JHA activity director Caryl Geiger sat at the piano thumping out tunes like “If They Could See Me Now” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” while resident Dorothy Scott served as emcee, describing each outfit in glowing detail.
The hours of practice the models put in paid off as they bounced, flounced and sashayed down the aisle between the tables.
Elegant Red Hatter Zosia Sauler (who had earlier given her age as “only 85”) proved she was to the runway born.
Foodman, who earlier had entered the makeup room pushing a walker, now pranced across the floor, swirling the folds of her gypsy skirt in time to the music.
Dorothy Delmonte, a former Yiddish theater actress who faces mobility problems at 81, couldn’t parade like the other models. But she wowed the 70 people in attendance with her gutsy rendition of “Second-Hand Rose” while decked out in a colorful pants outfit.
When model Dorothy Creager entered the festive hall, she did so on the arm of her sweetheart, 86-year-old Harry Schackman.
“I’m 86 and I have a boyfriend — the handsomest guy here,” the three-year Eisenberg Village resident announced proudly. “That’s why I’m smiling all the time.”