Purple Dresses, Red Hats And High School Musical: When Did Unique Become The Norm?“When I am an old woman, I will wear purple/ with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” For anyone who knows the Jenny Joseph poem, a wistful meditation on the liberation of aging, there are probably a hundred who are familiar with the Red Hat Society it spawned — the women-of-a-certain-age bonnes vivantes who celebrate age with an aggressively wacky uniform of purple garb, red chapeaux and, on occasion, glamorous boas. In an article in the New York Times, Paula Span meditates on the peculiar phenomenon, with its apparently untroubling blend of organized conformity, tame zaniness and highly lucrative free-spiritedness, and finds this boisterous, we're-not-older-we're-better form of aging not quite to her taste. As a younger woman, my questions were different: what's with the herd of independent minds?Of course, I'm well aware of the purpose of the Red Hat Society; have fun, enjoy getting older, make friends. Whatever one's objections to the group's style, it certainly could not be more harmless, and I imagine for women isolated at home, who perhaps find themselves with an empty nest, the yawning freedoms of retirement and maybe even a new life alone, it's probably a wonderful resource. Is it the most sophisticated thing in the world? Maybe not — but I'm sure the author has no shortage of things to do with her time that are more to her taste. If Span finds the gung-ho aging of the boomer generation somewhat undignified, well, she's probably not alone; I can imagine nothing more incongruous than the picture of my own mother attired in a red hat and bonding with strangers over nothing more concrete than the accident of similar age. But it's hard not to take a 'whatever makes them happy' attitude towards such an enterprise. Is it puzzling to think that such obvious conformity and such a pretense of free-spirited individuality should note strike the members as discordant? Well, why should it? Such has been the currency of free expression for years. From the uniform specialness of each of the children in my progressive private school (each of whom was expected to then condense his uniqueness along proscribed lines for a college admission's essay, be found more or less special than other applicants, and dutifully attend a prestigious institution of higher learning where our uniqueness was further celebrated) to the mass-produced hipster gear at Urban Outfitters, the lip service to generic individuality is a standard part of the current societal fabric. The impulse is, of course, a fundamentally wholesome one — no one is saying a child's self-esteem should not be bolstered — but the blatant contradictions at work are risible. Consider, for example, the "Be Yourself!" message of the lucrative High School Musical industry — songs like "Stick to the Status Quo" encourage brains to befriend jocks and slackers to play music! — which then has no compunction outfitting millions of children in the accompanying gear. It's "thinking outside the box" — itself a noxiously corporate term. Take, even, the basic format of beloved reality programs like Project Runway — be creative, yes, but within these arbitrary parameters! There is a subtext at work, of course. This pretense of individuality is essentially a luxury good, not the sort of thing one can bother with if dealing with the realities of survival. It also feels very American to me, a sort of creepy conflation of the notion of rugged individualism mixed uneasily with a dollop of touchy-feely, mixed with a big dose of Capitalism and the necessary organization that fuels it. What I am curious to see is whether this wholesale acceptance of the generic free spirit can survive the tougher times that look likely to come. It does seem like we may not have the time — which, ironically, could probably lead to a great deal of individual development, just as already we've been forced to tailor our wardrobes and utilize our natural creativity more than ever before. Which is not to say that I wish any ill on the Red Hatters — in the middle of scary times, a flock of merry red hats can be a very comforting sight. Hatless, and Aging on My Own Terms [New York Times]