By Allyson Sutton
Every Easter in Charleston, hundreds of women in brightly colored chapeaus parade down Broad Street as if en route to a royal wedding. This annual promenade is just one of many events hosted by The Hat Ladies, a fashionable and enthusiastic volunteer group founded by Archie Burkel in 2001.
A Chicago native, Archie moved to Charleston by way of Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, anticipating a quiet, retired life. But as she and her husband settled into their new hometown, Archie felt like something was missing.
“I was in my early 50s and knew I was not ready to hang up my hat, but I didn’t quite know what to do,” notes Archie, who is now 72.
While hats had always been a personal passion (she discovered a hat in her grandmother’s attic at the age of 10, and has been hooked ever since), Archie also enjoyed a 25-year career as a guidance counselor.
“That work was my calling. It was meaningful,” she says. “Wearing a hat just didn’t feel meaningful to me.”
And then one day it clicked. She’d walk down the street and strangers would wave, smile and politely remark, “I love your hat.” Whether a simple fedora or a feathered fascinator, her hats sparked conversation, created connections and built self-esteem.
“As a counselor, one of my main goals was to give people self-esteem, particularly girls. I realized hats were the perfect way to do that in my new phase of life.”
With a new mission and a new motto – “When you look good, you feel good, and when you feel good, you DO good” – Archie organized the inaugural Easter Promenade in 2002.
Since then, the group has grown to well over 100 members, ranging in age from 12 to 90 years old. As the “Top Hat,” Archie facilitates all new member initiations, which requires a small annual fee, participation in at least one Hat Ladies activity per year, and, of course, a love of hats.
For Archie and her fellow Hat Ladies, the group is about more than bonnets and berets – it’s about community and camaraderie. In addition to monthly luncheons and “hat-py hours,” The Hat Ladies are one of the most actively engaged volunteer groups in town. Whether decorating caps at MUSC Children’s Hospital, working as docents for the Preservation Society, or jumping in as Habitat for Humanity’s clean-up crew, this “stylish brigade of volunteers” has supported nearly 80 local organizations in the past 15 years, even winning a Community Catalyst Award in 2012.
Their work hasn’t been limited to Charleston, either. For five years in a row, The Hat Ladies traveled to New York to host a “Hats of the World” Luncheon for female ambassadors to the United Nations.
“We may not have shared the same language, religion or ethnicity, but the hats we all wore brought us together. Hats are a common denominator between people,” Archie says.
Not only do they lift up the community; The Hat Ladies are a support group for one another. As one member explains it: “Here is a group of women who are living life fully. We talk about our losses, our joys, loved ones, shoes … and laugh through it all.”
And Archie is the perfect example of that spirit. She may be in her 70s, but she isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
“I’d love to ride this wave into its next phase,” she says. Already an author (her book, “The Joy of Hats“ came out in 2013), Archie has aspirations to do more public speaking and write her own hat-oriented advice column. She and the Hat Ladies have a packed calendar, with nearly 15 events scheduled this fall.
“The secret to life is having something to look forward to,” Archie says. “That’s what The Hat Ladies give me.”
The Ladies are recruiting volunteers for the 9/11 Silent Walk across the Ravenel Bridge and a holiday Pack the Purse drive with Tri-County Family Ministries, and they welcome potential new members to don their best hat and attend their Aug. 4 luncheon on Kiawah, or the Women Empowerment Fashion Show on Aug. 11.
More information can be found at: http://www.hatladies.org/Hatpenings.htm