the magic of early girlhood: idyllic afternoons whiled away trying on wobbly pumps and oversize hats, sipping pretend tea from tiny china cups and sharing giggles with a dear companion. How many grown-up gals would love to break free from their seemingly endless responsibilities and recapture those halcyon hours?

Thanks to a unique women's movement that's spreading faster than lemon curd on scones, an ever-growing sisterhood is rediscovering the simple joys of playing dress-up, holding tea parties and indulging in frivolity with like-minded friends. You see them every place, from elegant restaurants to rustic riding trails: laughing ladies, usually in their fifties or older, dressed to the nines in bright purple attire accented with fire-engine-red hats and glitzy jewelry.

Just who are these exuberant dames and why are they having so much fun?

"It's senior women having play dates!" says Stevie Young, 65, of Springfield, explaining in a nutshell the basic concept of the Red Hat Society, the international network of which she and some 750,000 women are members. Young belongs to Hell's Belles, one of nearly 300 Washington area official chapters of the Fullerton, Calif.-based phenomenon, which registers about 500 new chapters each week and boasts, at last count, more than 32,550 groups in 22 countries. Proudly billed as a "disorganization" with no official rules or bylaws, which holds events but never "meetings," the Red Hat Society started quite by accident.

On a whim, artist Sue Ellen Cooper bought herself a red hat at a thrift shop in 1997. She barely wore it, putting away the fedora and giving it little thought until a year later when her good friend Linda Murphy was turning 55. In trying to come up with a creative gift idea, Cooper recalled British author Jenny Joseph's poem "Warning," which opens with the lines, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me." Fond of decorating with themed displays, or "vignettes," Cooper decided to pair a framed copy of the poem with a red hat similar to her own, picturing the items displayed side by side.

As mutual friends saw the present, they asked for the same things when their birthdays rolled around. After she'd given red hats and poems to four or five women, Cooper got to thinking that the group ought to emulate the verse and buy purple outfits to accompany their cherry-hued headwear. Clad in their clashing ensembles, the pals casually formed the first Red Hat Society and ventured out for tea.

"We had more fun than we ever expected to have and decided to keep on doing it," she says. A second group formed in Florida, started by an interested friend of one of the Red Hatters in Southern California.

"We didn't just stop at red and purple -- we added boas and fake diamonds!" Cooper recalls. "All of that just sort of stimulated a return to a childlike attitude of play that I was surprised we all have buried in there."

For about a year and a half, the informal social clubs didn't attract much attention. But after Romantic Homes magazine featured a story about Cooper's gang in July 2000, "it just exploded" as women began contacting Cooper to find out how they could start their own Red Hat chapters.

"Ever since then, I've felt like I'm running to catch the bus," Cooper says of the society's rapid and unanticipated growth. "You can't make something like this happen. . . . It continues to have a life totally its own."

SHOW YOUR COLORS

While all Red Hatters adhere to the organization's credo of "Fun and Friendship Before and After Fifty" and attend all chapter functions dressed in full purple-and-red regalia, membership includes married, single, divorced and widowed women with widely varied personal and professional backgrounds.

"It's very free-form. I don't know if there is a typical Red Hat chapter anymore," says Cooper, whose title is "exalted queen mother." Every group has at its helm a queen mother, the chapter's organizer, and most groups include additional, generally self-appointed "officers," such as a vice queen to assist the head honcho, a "hysterian" to create a club scrapbook and a sergeant-in-gloves to keep potentially raucous behavior in check.

"The idea is never to be irritating or obnoxious," Cooper says of Red Hat outings. "The idea is just to play a little bit."

"I think initially it attracted people who were highly extroverted," she says, but members who are more subdued can "start with a purple suit and a very small red hat. You don't have to be a flaming extrovert: There's a lot of nerve in numbers."

Interest in Red Hatting spreads largely via word of mouth.

"The average chapter probably starts with one or two people who think this sounds fun. Then they'll call people who will call people," Cooper says. "I warn people, 'Figure out how big you want to be and stick with that.' "

While Cooper generally recommends capping a chapter's membership at about 20 to facilitate reservations for outings to places such as restaurants and tearooms, she's finding that many groups number from 50 to 100 women. Her own founding chapter has 23 members.

"We just do something once a month, and we take turns planning it," she says. "We're actually one of the tamer chapters."

Initially catering only to women ages 50 and older, the society quickly captured the attention of younger ladies who didn't want to miss out on the fun, Cooper says. She also received some flak from women who believed that Red Hatters must reach the big five-oh to earn the right to don the official colors. Cooper opted for a compromise to please everyone: Women ages 49 and younger are welcome, but they must wear pink hats and lavender clothing. Some groups now include multigenerational members: mothers, daughters and granddaughters.

"I don't care if they join -- they just have to wear the watered-down colors," she says. When a Pink Hatter turns 50, she usually participates in a royal "reduation" ceremony, in which fellow members present her with a new red hat.

Becoming an official Red (or Pink) Hatter is simple: A prospective member can search by country, state or Zip code the Web site's frequently updated listings of chapters. Each entry includes the club's name and base location as well as special interests, contact information and whether the group is accepting new members. Individual chapter dues are small: Joyce Entremont of Manassas, queen mum of Prince William County-based Hell's Belles, requests from each participant a $3.50 lifetime membership fee, which mostly helps defray the cost of jingle bells Entremont hands out as souvenirs at each event. Each woman is responsible for putting together her own purple and red wardrobe. Most groups with open membership encourage women to visit before joining, just to make certain a chapter caters to a person's interests and personality.

"In our chapter, we want new members (Tartlettes) to attend three of our functions before deciding to join us," says Judy Alden, queen mum of the Red Hearts of Bethesda, also recommending that women attend other chapters' events before making a choice.

"Each chapter is free to come up with its own system of induction -- if they care to have inductions," Alden says.

"After attending three functions and deciding to join in our merriment, they take an oath upon their red hat," she says of her chapter's induction ceremony. "It's always fun to watch them take the oath," which includes such pledges as "To approach each new challenge as an adventure, with a sparkle in my eyes, a smile on my face and an enormous sense of humor" and "To never wear my hat inside-out with the label showing."

Another option is to start your own registered chapter. Cooper charges an annual $35 registration fee, which helps her cover the expenses of running the society's "Hatquarters" and gives each chapter its Web site listing, an official charter certificate, 20 membership cards and invitations to official Red Hat Society events, such as the annual convention. The founding queen receives an official handbook and a Purple Perks card, which entitles her to discounts on such items as licensed Red Hat merchandise, See's Candy, FTD orders and tickets to "Menopause the Musical."

Individuals also can opt to join the Red Hat Web site's virtual chapter, Ruby Redhat's Ramblers, which requires an $18 Purple Perks membership offering the same privileges afforded chapter queens.

RED HATTERS ON THE GO

A sense of pure delight pervades Red Hat gatherings, starting with the members' colorful, accessorized-to-the-max outfits. Consistently, every hat is different, covering a spectrum of styles from pert pillbox to classic felt fedora to straw skimmer to Victorian extravaganza all decked out with plumage, bows and roses. Clothing ensembles -- also rarely identical -- vary from casual three-piece pantsuits to soft skirts with matching blazers to glittering, queenly gowns. Then there are the shoes -- red, purple, or red and purple in scads of pump and flat variations -- along with velvet handbags embroidered with red-hatted ladies, silky violet scarves decorated with printed red hats, lacy red gloves, hat-shaped brooches glistening with red crystals and bracelets dangling petite red-hat charms.

Cashing in on the society's soaring popularity, boutiques as well as discount, department and craft stores suddenly are stocking displays of purple and red stuff aimed at Red Hatters. Cooper has set up licensing agreements with a variety of companies, such as Boyds Bears and Christopher Radko, to provide official merchandise bearing the Red Hat Society's registered logo. Red Hatters, generally quite fond of shopping, also peruse thrift shops and eBay for purple and red bargains.

"It's very frightening, because I can't find any clothes except purple in my closet!" says Shirley Jackson, who just turned 74 and is queen mother of the Totally Eccentric Adventurous (TEA) Red Hatters of Vienna. And her hats? "Forty-five that I know of!"

Jackson, an area resident since 1944, started her Red Hat chapter three years ago by recruiting friends and running an announcement in a community newspaper. In less than a year, membership soared from six to 100. The current roster is 86, and the chapter boasts a 20-person waiting list. The women usually get together in groups of varying sizes several times a month for outings and sometimes host large, multi-chapter events, such as a fashion show featuring Red Hat clothing and accessories designed by women's apparel manufacturer and retailer April Cornell. TEA recently sponsored a book-signing appearance by Suzanne and Louise Kelman, English authors of "Big Purple Undies," a collection of humorous poetry about their experiences as wives and mothers. The Red Hatters crafted centerpieces accented by purple underpants, and many carried handbags made from large briefs dyed purple.

Typically, members take turns hosting outings, such as TEA's recent tour of the Long Branch manor near Winchester, coordinated by member Julie Patterson. After oohing and aahing over rooms filled with priceless antiques, the group gathers for a light luncheon, where each member receives a miniature red glitter-rimmed champagne glass filled with dark chocolate Hershey's Kisses covered with purple foil and mints in red hat-decorated wrappers. Each woman has fun opening a purple or red goody bag containing a surprise, from purple sunglasses to a shiny red picture frame.

"Each chapter has its own character," Entremont says. Hell's Belles, founded in July 2002, boasts 125 members and multiple, varied activities every month. The enthusiastic group's rebellious-sounding name -- a tribute to Entremont's late mother, who was fond of the expression "Hell's bells!" -- attracts attention, but "we're pretty well known now, and they know we're not motorcycle gangsters!"

"This isn't a group where you get to go and talk about your aches and pains and hot flashes," says Hell's Belles member Margaret Ranieri, who is in her early fifties and lives in Woodbridge. She's sitting among 40 or so red-hatted sisters gathered for an impromptu Monday night dinner at -- where else? -- Ruby Tuesday. The laughter never stops as the women visit, frequently leaving their seats to greet gals at other booths.

"We all come together and you put a damn red hat on, it's instant friendship," says Entremont, who, with her blond bob and glasses, looks like a grown-up version of illustrator Mary Engelbreit's whimsical Ann Estelle character. "It's very uplifting."

"We really like to come up with unusual activities, if we can," says Red Hearts' Alden. Her group's potential forthcoming events, in addition to embassy and museum visits, include such offbeat choices as a belly dancing class and a tour of Washington via motorized Segway scooters.

"We have voted down the idea of bungee jumping and a two-hour lecture on what it is like to be a mortician," she says.

Registered chapters in the Washington area run the gamut from nursing home residents who participate in on-site programs to small clusters of neighborhood friends who meet monthly for tea to huge groups of women from all over the region who attend a potpourri of events each month. An entertaining, often sassy, sampling of chapter names offers clues to the groups' natures, as well as their special interests: Ladies With a Hattitude, Le Roux Chappeaus, Twisted Sisters, Purple C.O.W.S. (Creative, Outgoing, Wise and Sexy), Red Hat Chili Peppers, the Red Foxes, Red Hattricks (which claims it's open only to hockey players) and Red-Hat Box'rs (specializing in the hobby of letterboxing). "I first heard about the Red Hat Society from two college friends who live in California," says Joan E. Dawkins of Washington, who recently started the 16-member Cerise Ladies chapter in the District. She recruited a few local friends, who in turn enlisted their friends, and the group held its inaugural outing, an afternoon tea at the Four Seasons, earlier this month.

"A young hostess at Four Seasons was so taken with our fanciful garb and sense of frivolity that she wanted to become a member!" Dawkins says. The new Red Hatters spent time getting acquainted, thinking up royal titles and discussing future activities, including a November mystery train ride and a classic-movie day.

"The suggestion that generated the most amount of excitement was the idea of organizing a children's games of yesteryear -- marbles, jacks, jump-rope, etc. -- activity at one of the local grade schools," she says.

"The part I like most about the Red Hat Society is you meet so many different people from different walks of life," says Donna Lane, 54, queen mother of the Red Hat Femme Fatales of Occoquan. "It's a great form of sisterhood."

Lane's fondness for Red Hatting overlaps with her Victorian-themed business, the Pink Bicycle Tea Room in Occoquan, which often hosts Red Hat teas. As she pours tea into dainty English china cups at a recent event, hostess Janet Arnett wears a vintage purple-and-red flowered apron she received as a shower gift 34 years ago.

"God knew I was coming here!" she says.

The tearoom's accompanying shop includes a room devoted exclusively to Red Hat-themed merchandise, which has proved so popular that Lane recently opened a second business, the Red Hatters' Boutique, in Fredericksburg.

"It's nothing but red and purple," she says.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A HAT MAKES

Cooper, who recently turned 60, says the Red Hat Society's booming success has changed her life 100 percent. She postponed her plan to concentrate on her artwork full time and instead devotes most of her time to promoting the women's network. Her husband of 36 years, Allen Cooper, retired from his career in surgical product development to handle the society's technical details, and daughter Andrea serves as creative director. Cooper's first book, "The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty," is a bestseller on the New York Times' Paperback Advice list, and she's finishing a follow-up, to be published next year. Red Hat Society LifeStyle Magazine makes its debut in January.

Cooper says she's pleased that the society is focusing positive attention on older women, who all too often get ignored. She's happy to help "change the perception of us as little doddering idiots, because we're not."

"I'm just really thrilled with all the rest homes and elderly people who say it's made a difference to them," she says. "I just feel like I'm fortunate to speak for some of these people and be their friends."

"I am thrilled to think my duties as a queen mum help get older people out and about and laughing. I feel this prolongs the joy and quality of life," says Alden, who turns 60 in December. "Magic happens every time you don your red hat and go out in public. Strangers become friendly and everybody smiles. One of our ladies claims her whole personality changes when she sets her hat on her head. She becomes giddy in anticipation of a fun time ahead."

Putting it simply, "I feel like I'm Miss Somebody," says Margie Ethridge, queen mother of the Red Hat Boomer Babes of Woodbridge.

Cooper says Red Hatters' family members generally prove supportive of the society.

"What's not to like about something that's obviously delighting someone you care about?" she says. "Men kind of get a little wistful about this."

Alden says her daughter, a lawyer, doesn't understand the appeal of Red Hatting, but "the first time my then-5-year-old grandson saw me dressed for a Red Hat event in my purple silk dress and broad-brimmed hat, his eyes opened wide and he said, 'Oh, Grandma, you look just like a movie star.' "

RED HAT SOCIETY -- The official Web site, www.redhatsociety.com, is the best clearinghouse for the latest Red Hat Society information. It includes news about chapter activities, details about national events (such as the 2005 convention in Las Vegas in June) and an online store featuring hats and other licensed Red Hat products. Cooper writes a chatty weekly e-mail, Friday Broadcast, archived on the Web site, to inform members about the exalted queen mother's appearances and notable Red Hat happenings throughout the world.

Several local Red Hat Society chapters dubbed Annandale-based freelance writer Mary Jane Solomon an honorary Pink Hatter.

Lady in red (and purple): Duchess of Glitz Doris Harris is a member of Hell's Belles, one of nearly 300 official Red Hat Society chapters in the Washington area. At right, the women of the society meet for tea at the Pink Bicycle Tea Room in Occoquan. Duchess Fanciful Bernie Degler and others at the first gathering of the new Washington chapter, the Cerise Ladies, at the Four Seasons. Members are encouraged to create royal titles for themselves. Sue Ellen Cooper, founder and "exalted queen mother" of the Red Hat Society, has written a best- selling book about the group. The Cerise Ladies include Empress Dorothy Byran, from left, Baroness Shelore Williams, Your Highness Estell Mathis Lloyd, Queen Mother Joan E. Dawkins, Lady Virginia Borkenhagen, Duchess Lorraine Talley and Duchess Fanciful Bernie Degler. "A young hostess at Four Seasons was so taken with our fanciful garb and sense of frivolity that she wanted to become a member!" Dawkins says.