It really doesn't matter what you’re wearing — so long as it’s red. A silly hat, tutu, snowsuit or sequined gown would all work. At least that’s the dress code for the Red Lady Ball, an annual fundraising event which will see its 43rd year in Crested Butte this coming March.
The Red Lady Ball first got its start in 1978 — created by local organization known as High Country Citizens Alliance. These days the environmental group — formed officially in 1977 — goes by the name High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA).
The organization gathered at Rumors Coffee and Tea House in Crested Butte on Tuesday to celebrate the release of the 2020 Red Ladies Calendar, honoring those crowned “Red Lady” at the annual ball over the past 12 years. The calendars — featuring photography by Lydia Stern, who was a Red Lady herself in 2017 — will benefit HCCA.
According to HCCA Board President Sue Navy, the last time organization produced a Red Lady calendar was in 2008. Navy credits Stern not only for the photography featured in the calendar but also for the idea itself. And with 12 years having passed since the last calendar was produced, it made for a perfect count of Red Ladies to be featured in 2020.
“The first Red Lady Ball was in ’78 in spring,” said Navy. “It wasn't like everybody was wearing red at the time — that hadn't become a thing yet.”
Back then, the community was fighting the mining conglomerate AMAX, whose aim was to mine molybdenum from 12,392-foot Mt. Emmons — located immediately northwest of Crested Butte and affectionately known to the community as the Red Lady.
According to legend, the name stems from the red glow that radiates from the mountain.
Frank Orazem, a Crested Butte old-timer described the mountain in the most poetic of terms, saying, “She was like an Oriental empress with one of those fancy high hairdos and headdresses. And her kimono was bright red and flowed down the sides of the mountain, all the way to her feet. I called her the Red Lady because that's what the basin looked like to me."
Over the course of the past four decades, HCCA has fought multiple mining proposals on the mountain. But the hard work doesn't come without a party — capped with the crowing of a Red Lady.
“Red Lady is typically someone who has given a lot to the community and the environment in particular,” explained Navy.
Dedication to the environment is key, and the winner is crowned with a creation dating back decades. The crown is laden with silk roses and rhinestones, buttons and butterflies, with an opportunity for each Red Lady to add their own tiny treasure to it. Each person nominated for the role is adorned with a uniquely beaded necklace.
“Yeah, it weighs about 100 pounds now,” laughed Navy.
Those who are crowned Red Lady can take on a range of roles, including participating in the Fourth of July parade, annual Flauschink parades, Vinotok and more.
While “lady” is the name of the game, there also have been a handful of men claiming the title over the years, including Bill Smith in 1988, Scott Yost in 2003 and most recently Dickie Brown in 2010.
“Everybody just contributes and it takes on a different energy each year and everyone represents Red Lady in their own way,” said Navy. “The Red Lady lends themselves to bringing out the feminine ethic around here which is pretty strong.”
Also strong is passion for protection of the mountain.
Gunnison resident Jim Dirksen recalled a group of skiers in the late ’70s creating a flashy, derogatory phrase out of flairs in a protest to AMAX’s mining plans.
“You could hear everyone yelling and screaming all over town when that thing was lit up,” said Dirksen.
While the actions of the group were ultimately disavowed by HCCA, they spoke to the anger of residents who wished to preserve the mountain’s natural beauty.
“Everyone was pissed off,” recalled Navy. “But that was part of the protest at the time.”
Danica Ramgoolam, owner of Rumors and the official 34th Red Lady, said those same values of standing up for the environment have carried on. Having watched her own parents attend the Red Lady Ball, it was an honor to participate, she said.
“I think it means being a peaceful warrior for the environment,” said Ramgoolam.
Steph White, another Red Lady, said the role changed the perception of herself.
“It’s just such an honor to be seen that way by the community,” said White. “It changes how you see yourself and makes you up your game too.”
For Navy, the latest calendar creation marks the success of HCCA’s hard work and the women (and a few men) who keep the movement going.
“We have all this energy — and 43 years later, it’s still working,” said Navy.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)
WHERE TO FIND A CALENDAR
Those interested in purchasing a 2020 Red Ladies Calendar can visit visit hccacb.org or Rumors Coffee and Tea House in Crested Butte.