AIKEN - In Aiken, they say, some people attend the steeplechases to see sleek horses, but others go to see what hat Sissy Brodie's wearing this time.
Will it be feathers, flowers, fruit or fur from the fabulous assortment the Aiken native has gathered throughout her life? She even jogs in a hat and likes to answer her doorbell in a flapper chapeau with a black feather curled onto one cheek, and she swears she came close to being born in a hat. "I was bald, and my mother slapped a hat on my head the first chance she got. I've been wearing them ever since."
And she has - practically everywhere. "I'm the first one people call when grandma dies to see if I want her hats."
No wonder 158 people have made reservations for the March meeting of the Aiken Newcomers Club, where Mrs. Brodie is putting on a hat fashion show Tuesday. It's an all-time high, says First Vice President Phyllis Spitale, who set the program up last fall, and "Sissy is the drawing card."
Among the hats in the show are the one Estee Lauder wore when visiting Princess Diana, and several others that belonged to the cosmetics queen and her vice president, Ida Walker, who's from Aiken.
There also will be several hats gathered for the occasion by Pete Ballard, curator for fashion exhibits at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., in addition to creations by some of the world's most famous designers.
Most of the hats, which will be worn by friends of Mrs. Brodie chosen for "knowing how to wear a hat and knowing how to have fun with it," are from her own collection, gathered from private collections here and around the world. Some days she's sure she'll take 130 or so to the show. Some days she thinks it might be 180.
Many are elegant, with their roses and wisps of illusion veil to turn heads. Others are simply whimsical, many of them made by Mrs. Brodie to fit the mood of the day.
There's a "Jimmy Buffett hat," inspired by his song Margueritaville with marguerita glasses and a silver salt shaker on the brim. There's the "Cher" hat, a silver skull cap with beaded silver strings hanging from it like braids. There are hats themed on wine-tasting, gardening, a gondola hat and hats decorated with seashells, fishing lures and other bits of whimsy.
And there's the black-feathered monstrosity that Mrs. Brodie's children used to say "looks like something you picked up off the road." They didn't want to sit with her in church when she wore it. It was in vogue in the '60s, but these days, Mrs. Brodie concedes the children had a point.
"Now I can't believe I wore that in church. And I thought I looked good."
Getting ready for the show has created a mad-hatter effect in Mrs. Brodie's York Street home. Her hats are usually confined to their own room and to a walk-in closet where they line upper shelves. For the moment, though, they're also covering a double bed and several chairs.
Reservations have closed for the Newcomers Event, which gives those attending some breathing room to choose or make the hat they wear. Belk Manager Charles DiPolito is donating prizes, including a crystal bowl, for the prettiest hat, the biggest, the ugliest and several other categories.
The tables at Houndslake Country Club's ballroom each will be decorated with one of Mrs. Brodie's antique hat stands and one of her legendary hats.
The Newcomers Club has a legend of its own - it's so much fun that people don't drop out when they quit being "new" to Aiken. Some members have hung around more than 15 years and still participate in one or more of the special interest groups, which include antiques, crafts, travel, books, bridge, gourmet cooking and exploring.
But President Nita Martin says there's more than fun involved. The 333 members also perform community service, and the nonprofit club contributes $7,000 a year to local charities.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.