Ann Winfred, Coming of Age Croneicles, posted this essay on her blog about Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning”:
WHEN I AM AN OLD WOMAN…
The teacher of my senior chair yoga class mentioned the other day that she finds herself inexplicably attracted to wearing purple after sixty years of being less than enthusiastic about the color. Her confession set off a dinging in the twisted coil of synapses I laughingly call my memory, so I climbed up the rickety steps to my brain to find the source of that dinging. Flipping through my Rolodex of recorded thoughts, I found it. Sometime back in my 30’s, I heard the phrase, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” and was intrigued by the sense of freedom and bravado the words conveyed. Not knowing if the phrase was a quote, a poem, a song or a book, I climbed into Uncle Google’s lap and let him take me on a type/click journey. This is what I found.
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” is the first line of a poem, “Warning,” written in 1961 by 29-year-old Jenny Joseph from Birmingham, England. A 1996 BBC poll declared “Warning” to be the United Kingdom’s most popular post-war (that’s WWII, ladies) poem, beating out Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.” Ms. Joseph produced a large body of work over her lifetime but this one poem has defined her and inspired thousands of women to wear purple in honor of their cronedom. Asked why she never wore her celebrated color, Ms. Joseph replied, “I can’t stand purple. It doesn’t suit me.”
The second line of the poem, “With a red hat which doesn’t go…” inspired the creation of the Red Hat Society by a California woman named Sue Ellen Cooper when she gave a friend a birthday gift of a vintage red fedora and a copy of “Warning.” The new birthday tradition spread, along with a penchant for purple outfits, red hats, and tea parties. The Society now boasts over 40,000 chapters in the United States and thirty other countries.
Watch Ms. Joseph and hear her delightful British accent as she reads her poem. Enjoy, ladies.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
You can hear Jenny Joseph read the poem on Ann Winfred’s blog: